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31 Jan 2017

The French ‘right to disconnect’. How it just might #HelpGBWorkWell

“If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.” That was written, not in 2017, but in the fifth century BC. These are the words of the Greek historian, Herodotus. And oh, how prophetic he was.

In 2015/16, 0.5 million UK workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. It should come as little surprise, then, that the French ‘right to disconnect’ should attract so much attention in the UK.

What is the right to disconnect?

On 1 January 2017, a new law was passed in France, giving workers the ‘right to disconnect’ from work-related emails after hours. Companies with more than 50 workers will now have to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

Though there are no current plans for the law to be enforced this side of the Channel, media attention surrounding the French decision has made us all sit up and take notice. Advances in technology and the ‘always on’ culture have increasingly blurred the distinction between work and home. We do have to find other ways to set boundaries.




Opinion is divided on whether ‘enforcing’ the ‘right to disconnect’ is a good thing

Critics argue that many people have built their own flexible ways of working by checking out for a while at school run and family dinner times. They then (happily) make up their hours on email after the kids are in bed. Others point out that many of us work in global markets – so we have to be online in different time zones to compete. Admittedly, the right to disconnect isn’t immediately straightforward.

But it will get us talking

Whatever your opinion, merely acknowledging the ‘right to disconnect’ is going to prompt healthy debate about what employers expect from their people, and what people expect from their employer. Maybe the blend of a connected work and home life suits some folks, while others want to single-mindedly graft at work, to secure peace at home later.

Encouraging a culture where staff can disconnect without penalty must support improved scheduling. When you can no longer rely on colleagues to reply to your emails at night, you’ll have to build in an extra day to get the job done. In turn, this could discourage that familiar culture of the ‘last push’ towards deadline, which is hard on everyone, and – in some industries – can be hazardous.

Preventing burn-out is not a new idea

In 2014, Daimler offered its staff an ‘auto-delete’ function to remove work emails sent to their address while on holiday. One company in Paris advocates ‘no email Fridays’ as a way of getting its people taking again. Other companies see the ‘always on’ culture as a threat to creativity – and therefore business prosperity. In response, one American insurance firm has begun distributing sleep monitors and rewarding employees who achieve 20 consecutive nights of good sleep. How would the UK feel about that?

Join the conversation

Whatever your thoughts, one good thing has come of the ‘right to disconnect’ already. We’re all talking about it. And we’re all considering where our boundaries lie. Maybe – when you read those work-related stress statistics up top – maybe it’s just in time.