New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal has introduced a bill that would “make it unlawful for private employers in the city of New York to require employees to check and respond to email and other electronic communications during non-work hours.” The proposed law would apply to private organizations with more than ten employees and would fine violators $250 for each instance of noncompliance. The rationale behind the bill is to combat the high incidence of overwork among New York City residents, the New York Times’ Jonathan Wolfe notes:
The average New Yorker already works 49 hours and 8 minutes a week, longer than their counterparts in the next 29 largest cities in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the city comptroller. And that’s not including hours spent emailing at home. A 2017 study found that, on average, workers spend an extra eight hours a week sending email after work. Research has also shown that people who responded to work communications after 9 p.m. had a worse quality of sleep and were less engaged the next day.
“When you don’t have recovery and time off, it leads to more stress and ultimately burnout and exhaustion,” said Larissa K. Barber, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University who conducts research on work-life balance and coined a term for the urge to respond: “telepressure.”
The law is modeled after the “right to disconnect” law that came into effect in France last year, which mandates that organizations of more than 50 people agree with their employees on hours when they are not required to perform online work tasks like checking email. Modern telecommunications indeed pose a challenge in terms of work-life balance, as employees who work at all hours run a greater risk of burnout and stress.
In a world of constant connectivity, it can be difficult for knowledge workers to separate themselves from their work and carve out genuine personal time. Employers can exacerbate this “always on” problem when they create an expectation that employees will respond to work-related emails at all hours simply because they can. At Quartz, Anne Quito passes along some solutions to that problem from participants in a workshop at last month’s TED conference:
The most insidious of all emails are those sent while we’re not in the office. German companies Volkswagen and Daimler AG have taken proactive measures to help employees safeguard their time off. Volkswagen’s Blackberry servers stops delivering messages after an employee’s shift and Daimler has a voluntary “Mail on Holiday” program that automatically deletes incoming messages when employees are on vacation. “As employees come back from holidays, they start with a clean desk,” explains a Daimler human resource representative to Quartz.
A manager who works in an Australia start-up says he turns his mobile phone off during the month he goes on annual leave. For bosses and clients who insist on keeping contact, he gives his out-of-office email as his out-of-office contact. “I say if you need to contact me, here’s my wife’s email address.” It’s an offer no one has ever taken, he reports. “It can be done—disappearing for weeks at a time.”
I would be in big trouble if all the emails I received while on PTO were deleted, but the off-hours struggle is real! Rather than going to such an extreme as deleting everything, something I’ve found useful in the past is setting expectations with my team about what communications will be important to send, and which are safe to omit.
Forward-thinking employers everywhere are increasingly concerned about protecting their employees’ work-life balance and avoiding an “always on” culture of constant connection, in order to prevent burnout, attrition, and problems to motivation and productivity—but only in France is the issue of being addressed head-on with legislation. Last May, the French government put forward a suite of reforms to its famously strict labor regulations, most of which were designed to relax rules around the work hours and employers’ ability to hire and fire, but which also established a “right to disconnect” that would force organizations of more than 50 people to agree with their employees on hours when they are not required to perform online work tasks like checking email.
The law went into effect in the new year, Agence France-Presse reports, so French companies must now either negotiate off-hours protocols with their employees or publish a charter making explicit what is expected of them outside normal working hours:
French newspaper Libération praised the move in an editorial on Friday, saying the law was needed because “employees are often judged on their commitment to their companies and their availability”. Some large groups such as Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany or nuclear power company Areva and insurer Axa in France have already taken steps to limit out-of-hours messaging to reduce burnout among workers. Some measures include cutting email connections in the evening and weekends or even destroying emails automatically that are sent to employees while they are on holiday.