After-hours and weekend work emails may soon become illegal in France. A bill that prevents companies of 50 or more employees from sending emails after typical work hours passed the French lower parliamentary house earlier this week.
The case against after-work emails is that they can cause high levels of stress among employees.
“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be and that the stress is constant,” said Benoit Hamon, a Socialist member of Parliament, to the BBC. “The texts, the messages, the emails they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
It’s not the first time a bill of this nature has been proposed. It’s similar to legislation that was introduced but never made it to the books in both France and Germany. France’s most recent bill, however, is the closest an after-work email ban has come to becoming an actual law.
Gillian Symon, who studies the way modern people switch between the digital and corporate world, applauds the legislation for placing the responsibility of balancing work and life on the bosses rather than the employees. She said that her research with Digital Brain Switch, an interdisciplinary project that combines research from several UK universities, has found that the implications of putting the onus of answering work emails on employees can have devastating emotional effects.
“There was much guilt, as you might expect as people felt concerned about whether they should ignore work or their family, again putting all the responsibility for the ‘choice’ on employees,” she told The Washington Post.
But both Symon and Jon Whittle, another researcher at Digital Brain Trust, fear that the law does not get to the root of the issue. It sometimes can be more stressful, they say, for an employee to power down their device because of the slew of emails that could be waiting for them in the morning. “I think the topic of work-related well-being is much larger than simply stopping email after-hours,” said Whittle. “Email is just a medium used to communicate. The real problem is the culture of having to constantly do more and constantly do better than competitors.”
This fear of being left behind by the competition is expressed by some workers. “In my company, we compete with Indian, Chinese, American developers. We need to talk to people around the world late into the night,” a software coder named Gregory told the BBC. “Our competitors don’t have the same restrictions. If we obeyed this law we would just be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
But Whittle of Digital Brain Trust is quick to point out that a workplace that prioritizes well-being among workers promotes better work. “Having a happy and stress-free workforce can provide a competitive advantage,” he said. “The culture of expecting people to be always connected and always on will not necessarily lead to a competitive advantage; it could just lead to burnout and losing top-performing staff.”
The bill will journey to the Senate next, where it will be reviewed, before going back to the National Assembly for final passage. It’s been highly contested since its introduction, specifically for its legislative rollbacks to the country’s prized labor code that protects employee rights. Despite the the bill’s controversy, the after-work email ban has been largely popular among President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party.