French employees can legally ignore work emails outside of office hours

French President François Hollande, seen on a iPad screen in Marseille, gestures as he gives his traditional New Year's speech in a prerecorded presentation. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)
That 10 p.m. email from your boss? It's your right to ignore it.

That Saturday ping from a colleague with “just one quick question?” A response on Monday should suffice.

If you're in France, that is.

French workers rang in a new year at midnight — as well as a “right to disconnect” law that grants employees in the country the legal right to ignore work emails outside of typical working hours, according to the Guardian.

The new employment law requires French companies with more than 50 employees to begin drawing up policies with their workers about limiting work-related technology usage outside the office, the newspaper reported.

The motivation behind the legislation is to stem work-related stress that increasingly leaks into people's personal time — and hopefully prevent employee burnout, French officials said.

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog,” Benoit Hamon, Socialist member of Parliament and former French education minister, told the BBC in May. “The texts, the messages, the emails: They colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

France has had a 35-hour workweek since 2000, but the policy came under scrutiny recently given France's near-record-high unemployment rate.

The “right to disconnect” provision was packaged with new and controversial reforms introduced last year that were designed to relax some of the country's strict labor regulations. The amendment regarding ignoring work emails was included by French Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri, who reportedly was inspired by similar policies at Orange, a French telecommunications company.

“There are risks that need to be anticipated, and one of the biggest risks is the balance of a private life and professional life behind this permanent connectivity,” Orange Director General Bruno Mettling told Europe1 radio in February. “Professionals who find the right balance between private and work life perform far better in their job than those who arrive shattered.”

The legislation passed the French lower parliamentary house in May. It was not the first time such a bill had been proposed, as The Washington Post's Karen Turner reported. Similar legislation banning work-related emails after work hours had been introduced in France and Germany before but never made it to law.

The move received criticism from some who worried that French workers would get left behind by competitors in other countries where such restrictions did not exist. Still others objected to government interference.

“In France, we are champions at passing laws, but they are not always very helpful when what we need is greater flexibility in the workplace,” Olivier Mathiot, chief executive of PriceMinister, a Paris-based online marketplace, told BBC News in May.

Mathiot told the news site its company had implemented “no-email Fridays” and felt the problem should have been handled through education, not legislation.

However, supporters of the bill said it would be an important move toward minimizing work-related stress among French employees.

“At home the workspace can be the kitchen or the bathroom or the bedroom,” Linh Le, a partner at Elia management consultants in Paris, told BBC News. “You're at home but you're not at home, and that poses a real threat to relationships.”

French companies are expected to comply with the law on a voluntary basis, and there are no penalties yet for violating it, BBC reported.

In the spring, news of France's “right to disconnect” legislation prompted some discussion about whether anything like it could be viable in the United States.

Hosts on the “Today” show didn't think so when they discussed the incoming French law on a segment in May — while simultaneously riding stationary bikes in support of “Red Nose Day,” an unrelated campaign.

“That [law] would never work here,” host Matt Lauer told his colleagues, as they all sweated and pedaled through the entirety of their live television broadcast.


French workers win legal right to avoid checking work email out-of-hours

From Sunday, French companies will be required to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology as the country seeks to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email checking.

On 1 January, an employment law will enter into force that obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones.

Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness as well as relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.

The measure is intended to tackle the so-called “always-on” work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime – while also giving employees flexibility to work outside the office.

“There’s a real expectation that companies will seize on the ‘right to disconnect’ as a protective measure,” said Xavier Zunigo, a French workplace expert, as a new survey on the subject was published in October.

“At the same time, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them,” added Zunigo, who is an academic and director of research group Aristat.

The measure was introduced by labour minister Myriam El Khomri, who commissioned a report submitted in September 2015 which warned about the health impact of “info-obesity” which afflicts many workplaces.

Under the new law, companies will be obliged to negotiate with employees to agree on their rights to switch off and ways they can reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives.

If a deal cannot be reached, the company must publish a charter that would make explicit the demands on, and rights of, employees out-of-hours.

Trade unions which see themselves as guardians of France’s highly protected workplace and working week of 35 hours have long demanded action. However, the new “right to disconnect”, part of a much larger and controversial reform of French labour law, foresees no sanction for companies which fail to define it.

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.

A study published by French research group Eleas in October showed that more than a third of French workers used their devices to do work out-of-hours every day. About 60% of workers were in favour of regulation to clarify their rights.

But computing and work-life balance expert Anna Cox from University of College London (UCL) said companies must take into account demands from employees for both protection and flexibility. “For some people, they want to work for two hours every evening, but want to be able to switch off between 3 and 5pm when they pick their kids up and are cooking dinner,” she said. Others are happy to use their daily commute to get ahead before they arrive in the office, she explained.

Furthermore, she said the world of work was changing as rapidly as the technology, with more and more employees working remotely or with colleagues in other time zones. “Some of the challenges that come with flexibility are managing those boundaries between work and home and being able to say ‘actually I am not working now’,” she said.

One of the positive effects of the law will be to encourage “conversations with people working together about what their expectations are”, said Cox.


France gives workers 'right to disconnect' from office email

A new labor law that took effect on Sunday gives employees the "right to disconnect" from email, smartphones and other electronic leashes once their working day has ended.

"These measures are designed to ensure respect for rest periods and ... balance between work and family and personal life," the Ministry of Labor said in a statement.

The rule requires companies with 50 or more employees to negotiate new out-of-office email guidelines with staff. Firms have a duty to regulate the use of emails to ensure employees get a break from the office.

If management and staff cannot agree on new rules, the firm must publish a charter to define and regulate when employees should be able to switch off.

French unions have long pushed for a "disconnect" rule, saying digital technologies have created an "explosion of undeclared labor" that is forcing employees to work outside the typical work week.

Marie Pierre Fluery, who works as a human resources director, said the law is necessary to help people avoid being overwhelmed by work demands.

"I think it is essential in order to preserve the health of employees," she said.

Some French companies have already put rules in place to bar employees from using their work devices after hours. Some firms even completely shut down their email systems overnight.

The government has quoted a recent study by consulting firm Eléas that shows just over one-third of professionals use their work computers and phones outside office hours.

The email rule is the latest in a series of measures designed to overhaul France's labor laws.

The government last year introduced new rules that make it easier for employers to fire workers and reduce overtime pay. The changes resulted in crippling strikes.

The country's 35-hour work week has been in place since 2000, but various reforms have softened these rules over time and some industries are granted special exceptions.

France's economy has been stagnating for years and many multinational firms take a dim view of French business regulations.

The International Monetary Fund expects France's economy will grow by 1.3% this year, on a par with 2016.

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