France Outlaws Weekend Work Emails: Should America Do The Same?

Americans could learn a thing or two from the French when it comes to work culture. Recently, the French government implemented a groundbreaking rule that reforms the conditions under which French people handle work emails during their weekend “downtime.” For the first time, the French have been granted “the right to disconnect.”

The Right to Disconnect

Without a doubt, the digital era has changed the way we do business. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones make communication more effective and streamlined. We expect answers instantly, not days or weeks later.

But fast and easy access to information also means company accounts synced to the smartphones we obsessively check alongside personal social media outlets early mornings, nights, weekends and even on vacation. The willingness in which we stand ready, willing and able to receive business correspondence throughout the weekend, if necessary, makes us better employees — so we think.  

In some professions, after hour and weekend emails cannot be avoided — doctors on call, emergency workers, etc. But most of us should take a lesson from the French. Stop reading emails, stop thinking about work, and simply “disconnect.”

Why we do it and why we shouldn’t

Many people work on weekends for one simple reason, suggests the Harvard Business Review — because they enjoy it. But research shows that whether we enjoy it or not we often overdo it and that constant work poses health risks.

In a recent study, Francesca Gino at the Harvard Business Review asked over 500 employees to think about and describe one of four experiences: a time when they felt productive at work, very busy, unproductive, or not busy at all. The study found that when people felt productive, they reported feeling happier with life. And by feeling happier, people believe they are making a difference in the world. So, if you enjoy your work then working on the weekend and responding to emails shouldn’t be a problem right?

Another study conducted by Bradley Staats of the HBR in collaboration with Hengchen Dai and Katherine Milkman, Wharton School of Business, and Dave Hoffman, University of North Carolina, examined the problem of “burnout” when people work too much. Research found that similar to muscle fatigue from over-exertion, so too can the brain become over-fatigued from working weekends. In the long run, ‘burnout’ makes you less productive.  

Should the government intervene?

When it comes to after work email habits, the French government thinks the “weekend” problem is universal and growing, and that intervention is needed. Companies of more than 50 people will be obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct establishing the hours during evenings and weekends when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails according to the new French mandate.

“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” says French socialist MP Benoit Hamon to Hugh Schofield for BBC News. “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

Maybe our government will take notice of France’s new email law and thus intervene on behalf of those who just can’t say no to unpaid weekend work, which often overtakes an employee’s personal life. If nothing else, maybe Frances mandate serves to remind us of the importance to “turn off” work.

The right to disconnect is not just a French issue, but rather a work issue that many of us can relate. How many weekend work emails have you received with the subject line titled “quick question.” And how many of those questions are so pressing that they can’t wait until Monday morning?

– Katherine Marko



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