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Why we need the right to disconnect

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Chinnapong)

On 1st January, 2017, workers in France were given the “right to disconnect”. Article 55 of the El Khomri Act is a key measure of the country’s revised Labor code that obliges companies with over 50 workers to begin negotiations with employees and guarantee them to the right to ignore their smartphones outside of working hours.   

It’s no secret that the rise of the smartphone has created an always-on culture, but while that has led to leaps in productivity it has also seen workers around the world burn out more quickly, compromise their work-life balance and become more stressed. Cabinet Eleas found that 12% of France’s working population suffers from a “burn out syndrome”, with 37% admitting they use their devices outside of working hours each day. 

It’s hardly surprising that 62% of French employees, and manager-level employees in particular, have been crying out for regulation to help curb the use of smartphones in the evenings and weekends.

It’s also encouraging to see the government respond with action. An equal balance between work and our personal life is central to our overall productivity happiness. Even the most motivated and satisfied employees have goals and responsibilities outside the office and need the time and energy to pursue those.

Many French companies have known this for years, and have taken measures to take pressure off their staff when they leave work.  For instance, the La Poste group effectively gave employees the right to disconnect in July 2015, according to Managing Director in charge of HR, Sylvie François. For Sylvie, "disconnection is more about educating and training people workers to achieve a good work/life balance than it is about regulating their activity.” 

At AXA France, employees are not required to reply to emails outside of normal working hours but have the option to if they wish. In the words of Sibylle Quéré-Becker, AXA’s Director of Social Development: “Prohibiting email access is not a nuanced-enough approach for us. We have staff working multiple time zones and cutting them off from emails means they cannot work together.” 

Quéré-Becker also raises the valid point that some employees might not be held back by a block on their work emails and will simply use their personal account instead, a practice which isn’t secure and puts the company at risk. 

That said, some organizations feel it is best to cut off email access completely outside of working hours. After, all the aim is to create a culture where employees don’t feel pressured to work after leaving the office and that may require some concrete restrictions. For instance, along with a number of major German companies Volkswagen disables the forwarding of emails to employee smartphones between 6:15pm and 7:00 am.   

No matter the approach, France’s move to help curb email access outside of working hours is both welcome and necessary. It has become instinctual for us to check our smartphone at all hours of the day, and while this has made people more productive than ever it has also blurred the important line between our work and personal lives. Digital technologies provide companies with the opportunity to get the most out of their employees, but also to help them develop personally and achieve greater balance if used correctly.   

Some might question whether government intervention is the answer, but if we are to help employees separate themselves from work it will take sweeping change on a large scale to have a lasting positive effect.   

Melanie Hache-Barrois, HCM Strategy Director South Europe 

Image Credit: Chinnapong / Shutterstock

Melanie Hache-Barrois
Melanie Hache-Barrois is Oracle’s Southern Europe HR strategy director, based in France. She is an expert in European HR trends.