Viva la revolution? With echoes of the 35-hour week, France is again considering legislation to enhance the work life balance of its workers. This is examined below, and we also query whether it could stretch across the Channel to affect employment practices in the UK.
French businesses seem set to face the prospect of rules about when their employees can be expected or asked to access and use their work emails and phones during 'out of hours' periods. Why? So that people can actually rest when they “finish” work.
As a French MP cited in the article says, "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 colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down."
He makes a good point. In a sense, the law in the UK even supports this way of working.
Working from home is becoming more common and generally receives good press. Employees have the legal right to request to work flexibly, which includes the right to request to work from home.
If someone works remotely, they obviously need to access work emails and make work phone calls from that remote location. And once you are working from home during the day, it is difficult to turn off at a specific time in the evening. Added to that, many of us don't switch off at night even if we have been in the office all day.
So we walk around, day and night, often with two phones in hand, one for leisure and the other for work, checking each one every few minutes. It becomes hard to tune off from work. For many workers, that results in a quite stressful life style.
Linh Le, a Parisian management consultant cited in the attached article, also says that the lack of downtime and workers' inability to detach from workplace communications technology is bad for creativity.
Should the law address these lifestyle balance issues?
Arguably, it could be a force for good here. After all, UK law does just that in other areas. For example, the UK law on annual leave has developed with a very definite ethos: that rest is vital for rejuvenation, and therefore annual leave needs the protection of the law so that employers must give it to their workers.
The UK courts have taken this further by preventing attempts by employers to create barriers to employees taking annual. For example, UK law mandates that workers cannot agree to be paid more instead of taking their leave entitlement.
So why shouldn’t the UK law also assist workers in escaping from the daily grind by switching off their electronic devices after work? Is it a bit too 'big brother'?
Of course, businesses here needn't wait for the law. Le is probably correct that downtime is good for creativity. It therefore makes sense for managers to assist their staff in obtaining some downtime so that physically and mentally, they feel well rested and refreshed.
That said, personally, I find that inspiration sometimes occurs when relaxing. I’ve had great ideas whilst out cycling. Surely I should be allowed to stop and note down the thought on my phone or send myself a prompting email so I don't forget?
Whilst I was on paternity leave recently, my bosses put pressure on me not to work, and for that I’m very grateful; but I did email a colleague once, when an idea came to me. I certainly wouldn't see either of those moments as an instance where I or my bosses had acted unreasonably.
Though researchers are constantly discovering new things about the human mind, individual working methods and the preferences of individual workers will vary. This has to be right. It's right to retain a flexible and pragmatic stance whilst recognising that it's important for us all to live our lives comfortably and happily and with as much work-life balance as it's possible to achieve.
If it goes ahead, it will be fascinating to see how the French law and its implementation develops. Do I see us Brits rushing to follow suit? To be honest, I think it’s unlikely. But it's a space to watch nevertheless. If there is a sensible way to provide a better quality life for the millions of us who make up the very diligent and committed UK workforce, I’d like to think it would be the subject of serious debate.
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Law for the online generation starts here
President Francois Hollande's Socialist Party is about to vote through a measure that will give employees for the first time a "right to disconnect"