Emailing after hours can damage our health and make us less productive, experts say. Is France’s ‘right to disconnect’ the best way to fight overwork?

Few of us are likely to be bored enough to tot up just how long we spend sifting through our emails. Fabien Mathy was far from bored when he did it, but what he discovered was a revelation.

He spent at least 600 hours a year reading, writing and sorting email messages while at work

He calculated that he spent at least 600 hours a year reading, writing and sorting email messages while at work. That is the equivalent of emailing solidly for eight hours a day through all of June, July and August.

Mathy, a psychologist at the Sophia Antipolis University in Nice, France, was so shocked, he chose to do something about it. He has ditched his smartphone and refuses to log in to his work email outside of office hours.

“I don’t read email in the evening and on the weekend so [colleagues] know they need to get an email to me by Friday afternoon or wait until Monday,” he says.

Mathy decided to build a barricade between his work and personal life a few years ago, but now many more workers are to getting the chance to follow his example.

The French government introduced legislation which went into effect on 1 January this year giving workers in the country “the right to disconnect”. It is a radical policy, aimed at counteracting an “always-on” work culture enabled by technology.

The 'right to disconnect' aims to refocus the line between work and home life

All companies with more than 50 employees – which accounts for about half of the French workforce –  must now negotiate with their employees over their “right to disconnect from the use of digital tools" to ensure workers can get enough personal and family time.

In other words, it aims to refocus the line between work and home life. Not by shutting off company servers at 18:00 or enforcing strict no-email policies at  weekends, but through guidelines tailored to individual companies. For some this might mean banning emails after certain times in the evening, while for others it might mean having certain employees on call at different times.

On and off

This new law has raised an interesting question – is it really possible to disconnect from email and would we be more productive if we did?

Mathy certainly believes so. He conducts research on human memory and our ability to switch between tasks.

“We know to do good work we need to prioritise the hard tasks,” he says. “But people prefer reading an email to thinking about a problem more deeply. We don’t have the reflex anymore to spend three of four hours on one project. It is a constant distraction.”

Mathy warns emails make us less productive, not more, and have all of the characteristics of an addiction.

I think emails have all of the characteristics of an addiction - Fabian Mathy

“These are tiny, very frequent things with systematic rewards and I think we get addicted very quickly to them.”

This addiction, he says, makes it easy to put off doing real work and makes us unproductive.

Mathy concedes his work – teaching and researching – may lend itself more readily to this than others. Someone who works in finance, for example, may need to be in touch with people on other sides of the world in different time zones.

But Mathy does have some advice he believes should apply to everyone.

“Emails are not actually good for our work most of the time,” he says. “They disrupt real, interesting work. If you realise that you are addicted to email then you can pay attention to the problem.”

Clock in, burn out

France’s law is part of a recognition that our constantly connected lifestyles may be posing a public health risk.

A growing number of studies point to longer and longer working hours leading to burnout – work related physical, emotional and mental exhaustion – becoming an occupational disease.

One study found 12% of the French workforce is at risk of burnout

According to a study by Technologia, a firm specialising in assessing occupational risks, 12% of the French workforce – or 3.2 million workers – is at risk of burnout. The consequences are not just dangerous for individuals, the study concludes, but financially perilous for the country as well: the Technologia study estimated the social cost of work stress to be 2-3 billion euro annually in France. In the US, workplace stress creates up to $190 billion worth of additional healthcare costs annually, according to an estimate by researchers at Harvard and Stanford University.

Analysis by the UK’s Trade Union Congress suggests in Britain there has been a 15% rise in excessive working hours – more than 48 hours a week – since 2010. The country’s Health and Safety Executive estimates 11.7 million days were lost to work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2015/16. Its figures show, however, that the number of cases of work-related stress has remained broadly the same over the past decade.

Right intention, wrong approach?

But is technology really the issue?

Critics of the French legislation fear by targeting people’s use of technology, the government may be trying to tackle the wrong problem.

“It’s just another thing going in the wrong direction,” says Marc Wratten, who co-owns the Workhouse Café, a sleek co-working space in Nice. “We need to move away from the old-school thinking of the nine-to-five work schedule, and let people manage their own work schedules.”

Many French criticised the new legislation as government overreach, while others pointed to the fact that the legislation is not legally binding

Many French criticised the new legislation as government overreach, while others pointed to the fact that the legislation is not legally binding. This is true – companies are not required to sign an agreement under the law –  but they can be found criminally liable if they refuse to negotiate with employees on the subject.

Even some who are in favour of the legislation, like Gras Jean Marie, a business owner in Nice, fear it will be hard to enforce.

“There needs to be a distinction between work and life,” he says. “But how can you prove that you won’t be punished if you choose not to respond to an email on the weekend?”

Outside France, the new law was widely mocked, playing into many entrenched stereotypes about the French work ethic and pampered workforce.

But there is some evidence to suggest they may be on the right track.

A 2015 study from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that people who were limited to checking their email just three times a day had lower stress levels than when they were allowed to check it an unlimited number of times. While perhaps an unrealistic scenario, it does suggest email use is partly to blame for harming workers’ wellbeing.

Another study from Colorado State University suggested it was the inability to relax due to fear of emails arriving out of hours that adds to that stress.

Changes at the top

One company in France has no doubts about the new law and helped lead the fight to put it in place.

After at least 19 suicides by employees between 2008 and 2009, French-owned global telecommunications company Orange (formerly France Telecom) chose to change the role of technology in its employees’ lives.

Executives at Orange introduced their own rules, discouraging employees from sending work messages outside office hours

Executives at Orange introduced their own rules, discouraging employees from sending work messages outside office hours and promising that managers wouldn’t penalise anyone for being offline outside of work.

They also trained managers to realise how sending out-of-hours emails can create undue stress for employees who might feel obliged to reply immediately.

Orange was not the only company to encourage disconnection. Car giant Volkswagen, energy firm Areva, and insurance company Axa all took steps to give their workers the right to disconnect before the law came in.

Back at the Workhouse Café, Wratten takes a different view. He says there are other ways to boost productivity and envisions a future where more people adopt a totally fluid work schedule.

“There is a lot of waste in the system today because of the way things are structured, he adds. ”People are just filling their time, looking at Facebook or whatever, but maybe they could be out with the family in the afternoon and working later when they need to.

“In the future companies should consider letting employees take the lead and decide when to work."

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