French workers are fighting back against the grind of the always-on knowledge economy.
By Jared Keller
Visitors to the Paris Plage relax on sun beds next to the Seine river in Paris, France. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Last week, French workers struck a blow against a distinctly modern form of oppression: the tyranny of email.
Buried inside the country’s proposed (and highly controversial) labor reform bill is a fascinating proviso empowering employees of certain companies to negotiate limits on work-related emails when they’re off the clock. That’s right: No more 2 a.m. memos from your boss, no more urgent projects tearing you away from the weekend cookout, no more treating your iPhone as an essential appendage. In a global knowledge economy characterized by an always-connected and always-on workforce, those rebellious French just delivered, as the New Yorker put it, a “counterstrike against work email.”
To be clear, the French aren’t “banning” after-hours work email, as many English-language outlets erroneously reported. But even so, the most telling feature of this new legislation isn’t a triumphant victory over the inbox, but the establishment of le droit de la déconnexion—the “right to disconnect”—for French citizens. “The development of information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers,” states Article 25, the amendment governing after-hours work email. “Among them, the burden of work and the informational overburden, the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life, are risks associated with the usage of digital technology.”
You should be paid for the work you do, period.
This trend is generally good news for workers. For starters, it addresses a long-meddlesome labor issue: Are the hours spent answering emails and Slack messages while you’re at home with your kids hours you should be paid for? And if so, do they account for overtime pay?
Though for now it’s all somewhat murky, there appear to be answers on the horizon. Last year, 50 Chicago police officers leveled a class action suit against the city government, seeking overtime pay for work-related correspondence carried out while they were off duty. The logic is simple: Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, certain employees deserve time and a half when an employer asks them to work more than the agreed-upon “work week.” You should be paid for the work you do, period.
Limits on email could also be a tremendous boon for knowledge workers, many of whom find increasingly blurred lines between their personal and professional lives. While a 2014 Pew Research Center report found that 46 percent of Internet-connected workers feel more productive, some 44 percent also regularly engage in work-related tasks outside of the office — and some 35 percent said they spent far more time working thanks to smartphones and personal computers. And this hour-less office has consequences: As I wrote two years ago (the last time the French email “ban” came up), the American Psychological Association “has identified tremendous risks posed by poor scheduling, unhealthy attitudes, and a lack of down-time between periods of labor, whether they take place in a physical office or not.”
Anyone who’s had to take a call in the middle of a family dinner knows how the tension between work and family can bleed into domestic life, but workers are also literally killing themselves for extra productivity: According to the Washington Post, working more than 55 hours a week puts employees at a higher risk for heart issues, depression, and early death.
To be sure, economic research suggests that the push to colonize every hour of the day for productivity’s sake — a major feature of the “great speed-up” that’s squeezing the American worker dry — has diminishing returns. According to 2014 research from Stanford University, employee productivity drops sharply when people work more than 55 hours in a week. In fact, someone “who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours,” as CNBC put it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the rise of “the right to disconnect” is without its flaws. The whole concept can be taken as a feature of the ongoing pushback against the Internet colonizing the institutions of “offline” life. In Europe, the “right to be forgotten” has emerged as a tool designed to reinforce the old shibboleths that distinguish between a life lived online and one lived in the physical world, a reinforcement of the “IRL fetish” articulated by sociologist Nathan Jurgenson in 2012. The rise of “digital sabbaths” — those forced vacations from ontological suffocation of work emails, subtweets, and Facebook memes, often enjoyed for a hefty fee — only reinforces the anxiety over this old delineation between the digital and the “real.” “We are far from forgetting about the offline,” Jurgenson wrote. “Rather we have become obsessed with being offline more than ever before.”
If the “right to disconnect” is part of a larger backlash to the suffocating encroachment of the Internet on every aspect of our social, economic, and political lives, so be it: Keeping the outside world out of the sanctuary of our homes is everyone’s right.