An unprecedented law gives French employees the right to ignore emails sent during hours that they’re off the clock—relieving pressure on a major stress point of the modern workplace. The recent U.S. Labor Department overtime rule, currently the subject of a court battle, suggests that the issue could also be of concern for American offices, too.
French workers just received some major relief from a common issue on the work-life balance front.
This week, a new law took effect in the country that compels employers with more than 50 employees to limit outside-of-work emails.
The rule was one of many worker reforms passed by the French government last spring, but it was by far the least controversial of those rules, which otherwise loosened the country’s tight rules for how much employees can work.
“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” Benoit Hamon a member of the French parliament, told the BBC last year. “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog.”
A Problem Beyond France
Perhaps the broad support for this rule in France is due to the way email bleeds into every aspect of our lives.
The issue is not an uncommon one, and there is evidence that email can create major stress issues. In 2015, the London-based Future of Work Centre released a report [PDF] that associated email pressure with work that negatively interfered with home life.
In comments to The Telegraph, the study’s lead author, Dr. Richard MacKinnon, noted that those stressed by email nonetheless found it useful.
“The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure,” MacKinnon told the newspaper. “But the habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages and the unwritten organizational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and wellbeing.”
As Susan Milligan noted in the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Magazine last year, this sort of email usage can come at a moment’s notice, and erode trust between employers and their always-on workers.
“In some cases, workers are having a hard time trusting that management really wants them to have a life outside their jobs, experts say. In others, people feel overloaded with home obligations and can’t turn that tension off at work,” Milligan wrote. “Many also feel haunted by the memory of the Great Recession—a time when people counted themselves lucky to be employed at all—and thus remain in a ‘new normal’ state of overwork in order to prove that they are indispensable.”
Could Americans See a Similar Law?
France’s law is unusual because it in effect mandates the way employers and employees interact outside of the office.
Is that something that the United States could see someday? Well, in a way, a closely watched rule in the association space could be seen as a de facto “email law.”
The Labor Department’s recent overtime rule, which is currently on ice pending a federal court ruling, raised concerns from employers that they would have to implement email curfews for employees. With the maximum wage for overtime exemption being increased to $50,440 per year, it’s likely that millions of professional employees may find themselves technically eligible for overtime if they start responding to a bunch of emails.
More specifically, the Labor Department has in recent years taken an interest in the issue of work-related smartphone use outside of work hours, which was a sticking point for many employers following the rule change.
The odds of the overtime rule taking effect in its current form are relatively low, in part because Congress has also pushed against it. But the issue may not go away. Smartphones are only going to become more prevalent, for one thing.
But it may still be worth discussing whether your own office needs an “email curfew” of its own—for the sake of your employees’ stress levels.