France didn’t ban people from checking work e-mail after 6. This is why it should have.


Cafe patrons in Paris. (bass_nroll/Flickr)

Much to the Internet’s disappointment, France did not in fact make it illegal to send work e-mails after 6 — despite many reports au contraire. (The reports stemmed from an agreement made between labor unions and a federation of engineering and consulting companies, affecting 250,000 people and involving no official laws.) Perhaps the online frenzy around the news, however, and our widespread willingness to believe it, suggests a more important truth about e-mail, connectedness and productivity: France didn’t ban off-hours e-mails … but it should.

I’m talking figuratively here, of course: Obviously, there are a lot of problems with a government legislating something like the hours you can check your phone. But there’s lots and lots of evidence that unplugging from work isn’t just good for individual employees — it’s good for companies and economies, too.

France actually serves as an instructive example here. Sure, maybe the country didn’t outlaw after-hours email — but it did famously legislate a 35-hour workweek for most employees, guaranteeing them plenty of off-the-clock time. Despite the fact that they work comparatively little, however, France’s workers are among the most productive in the world — and they’re not alone in that regard. In six of the world’s top 10 most competitive countries, it’s illegal to ask an employee to work more than 48 hours a week.


(OECD)

At first glance, that doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense. More work hours should, logically, mean more work gets done. (That’s certainly the attitude in the type A mecca of Washington, D.C., where working 9 to 5 is, frankly, considered slacking.) But there’s actually a point at which working more becomes unproductive. That’s due to two main factors, to paraphrase Stanford’s Eric Roberts: First, workers become less efficient overall, due to stress, fatigue and other factors. Second, overworked employees tend to make more mistakes — mistakes that frequently take a long time to fix.

And that’s pretty intuitive, right? We all know from experience that the last few hours of a 10-hour day tend to devolve into Facebook-checking and the like. (I am now in hour eight of my day, and the froyo break I took 15 minutes ago is the only thing getting me through this blog post.)

But the ubiquity of smartphones, and employers’ insistence that we keep them on, has morphed the traditional workday into something stretchy and inconsistent: Now, even when you are not in the office, you are very likely still working. In fact, according to Pew, Americans suffer from something of an addiction to their devices: 44 percent of cellphone owners sleep with their phones next to their beds, just to make sure they don’t miss anything overnight.

That is not just a work/life-balance issue, as the preceding productivity numbers show shows — it’s also an economic one. To quote the New York Times’ Tony Schwartz:

A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

That might not be enough to justify France, or any other country, legislating after-hours e-mail. But it’s certainly a reason for companies to consider it.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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