Should workers have the right to disconnect?

Photo: RetailWire
Jan 04, 2017
Tom Ryan

Under a new law that went into effect on Jan. 1, French workers have a “right to disconnect” with their employers outside of typical working hours.

French companies with more than 50 employees are now obligated to set up guidelines stipulating times when employees are not required to read or answer work-related emails or texts outside of the office. Companies are expected to comply voluntarily.

According to The Guardian, the law addresses “compulsive out-of-hours e-mail checking” and is designed to reduce stress and burnout.

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work,” Benoit Hamon, Socialist member of Parliament and former French education minister, told the BBC in May, when the legislation was introduced. “They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog.”

According to French research group Eleas, more than a third of French workers use their electronic devices for work outside of their work hours every day. Sixty percent were in favor of regulating such after-hours communications.

French newspaper Libération said the law was needed because “employees are often judged on their commitment to their companies and their availability.”

Some studies have shown that limiting communications — such as to three post-work emails a day — reduces stress compared to unlimited communications, but others show that any expectation to answer after-hours work messages increases stress levels. A complicating factor is that Millennials, having grown up digitally, are used to blurring work their and personal lives.

According to an article in the Raconteur, a supplement to the U.K.’s The Times, some ways companies are helping their employees maintain a healthy work-life balance in an “always on” culture include banning internal emails in the evening or weekends, shutting down company email servers after hours, and automatically deleting emails when employees are on vacation.

Critics charge that strictly curtailing such communications would hinder those working flexible hours or those that find balance by planning or catching up on their job during off-work hours.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should retail employees (whether store- or office-based) be expected to be “always on” as part of their employment? What pros and cons do you see from round-the-clock connectivity? Would you support limits to after-hour work communications for workers in the retail industry?

"No one should ever be expected to be 'always on' -- not if you want their best."
"It is surprising that France needed to pass this law. In France, work outside of work is not the norm."
"I remember a quote from the ad agency days that went something like this, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday.”"

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20 Comments on "Should workers have the right to disconnect?"

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Max Goldberg

Employees should not be expected to be “always on” despite their lifestyles, just as they should be encouraged to take allotted vacation days. Companies should encourage all employees to have some down time and discourage a culture that implicitly punishes people for disconnecting. My hope is that this could be accomplished without enacting legislation.

Meaghan Brophy

It’s absolutely a problem in our society. I think retail is different from office environments primarily because retail workers are hourly. If they are answering emails or texts from supervisors, they’re not getting paid for it. And that is wrong no matter how you look at it. While no one should be glued to their work phone or computer 24/7, there is a case to be made for higher-paid salary employees to be more readily available should something urgent come up. But for hourly employees, it’s downright disrespectful for managers to contact workers regularly when they are not getting paid for it.

Lee Kent

Boundaries! It’s all about boundaries and it’s not just limited to retail workers. We are all faced with this issue every day and it is a growing problem. How does one not identify one person as being more supportive than the next when one answers their messages immediately and the other doesn’t? But we all need to set boundaries and not be judged by them. I’m not sure that creating a limit to how many messages are allowed a day will fix this. And yes, it does up the stress level if messages are coming in any time of the day or night about work.

I face this same problem myself and still have not figured out the right answer but it starts by telling my clients what they can and can’t expect from me. Likewise retailers will need to tell their employees what is expected of them and all agree to abide by the rules. This is a tricky one but one that must be addressed sooner rather than later.

For my 2 cents.

Bob Amster

Employees should not be expected to be always on. It is very stressful and there should be a separation of work and personal time. While round-the-clock connectivity may be seen a strong commitment by the employee to the business (and maybe a quicker path to promotion) it can be very harmful personally to the employee and it can create an unrealistic expectation by management that the employee will always be available. Workers can limit their involvement by simply not responding to off-hours communication, unless they have been specifically asked to be available. I agree with Max that legislating the issue goes too far.

Tom Redd
Companies like mine push for you to establish a work/life balance. All companies push this in some way. But for some people this is not possible — they love their work and their work is their personal life too. That is how it was for me, back when we had no cell phones and I was a developer. I went in on weekends. I worked really late. Work was my joy! After the kids arrived that cut back but I still had some all-nighters as we drove to change POS technology. This is a personal decision and not one for any government to get involved in! If a young person wants to work — let them. It paid off for me and my kids. It might also pay off for a young person today who wants to change an industry or at least make a dent in it as I did. Great value later in life by hitting the work field hard when you are young … IH-DLC was a tough communications language to learn… Read more »
Nikki Baird

It’s a two-way street. If companies expect employees to be “always on” then they should also expect that employees are going to conduct life business at work — and should give employees leeway to make that happen.

If companies expect focused attention at work with no room for that run out to the doctor’s appointment or texting with your kid, then they should also expect they have no right to intrude when an employee is not working. It’s employment, not servitude.

But there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on the work, and it depends on the worker. And companies — and workers — should have the flexibility to work it out for themselves, as long as one party is not taking advantage of the other.

Ian Percy

Yours may be the best comment today, Nikki!

Susan O'Neal
11 months 11 days ago

No one should ever be expected to be “always on” — not if you want their best, either creatively or productively.

Gene Detroyer

It is surprising that France needed to pass this law. In France, work outside of work is not the norm. The 24-hour business mindset for employees is largely an American phenomenon. It is almost impossible to do business around the world when it is “family” time in the local geography. Where the law is really needed is right in the U.S.

Zel Bianco

This is a slippery slope. Most workers today, especially those that have grown up with having a phone tethered to their hands, want to have it both ways.

If you are going to have a work environment where you can do your work from anywhere with the flexibility to do that work at any time, there must be trade offs. If an employer allows total flexibility, then asking employees to respond after normal hours is justified.

If in fact we are talking about staff that come in and work a normal day and you continue to expect them to work after hours and on weekends, then there does need to be limits. At the end of the day, technology gives us all freedoms we never had before. I remember a quote from the ad agency days that went something like this, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday.”

Anne Howe

All employees deserve the right to be “off-line” and have time to de-stress and re-connect with people in real life. Retail employees are no different than any others, and may in fact need more time to de-stress from the ever-escalating consumer expectation of, “you need to be always on so I can get what I want whenever I want it!”

We’ve lost respect for the human factor and the fact that relationships are built on the cornerstone of helping one another in two-way interactions!

Ian Percy
I’m interested in the term “right.” As in “inalienable rights.” According to Wikipedia, “Natural rights are those that are not dependent on the laws or customs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable.” In short they cannot be given or taken away. In suggesting that the employee has no life outside of and away from work, we see a reversion to a slavish relationship where life is dictated by someone who can hurt or reward you according to your performance. Now out of the goodness of their heart, lawmakers have to step in and “free” the employees to live their own lives. Max is right to imply the question: “This takes a law?” It’s more than merely checking business email. Not getting away from work has ruined a lot of lives and families. A while back, a 28-year-old female employee in a Japanese advertising agency committed suicide because she could no longer tolerate the 24/7 claim on her life. She clocked 105 hours of overtime in the month leading up to… Read more »
Ross Ely

Legislating the times when email can or cannot be sent is no job for the government. Employees and managers should work together to set mutual expectations for email use outside of business hours.

Employers that respect employees’ time off and allow flexibility will be rewarded with loyal, engaged workers while managers that abuse employees’ time off will see challenges with attrition and high burnout rates. Issues like these should be resolved on an individual basis, not by a heavy-handed benevolent government.

Ed Rosenbaum

I used to think the smaller the company one works for the more the employees are expected to be “on.” Now I am not sure about that. I think the tendency is you are more “on” the higher you are in the pecking order. I also think bosses will take advantage of an employee if s/he thinks they can. No, I do not want to see this legislated. But I do think employers need to be more conscious of employees’ “down time” to enable them to be more productive during “on time.”

Shep Hyken

Typically, retail employees are paid by the hour. They clock in and out. (If they are expected to remotely or digitally work outside of those clocked-in hours, they should be paid.) Salaried employees, such as managers, have a different set of expectations they need to meet. Do I feel employees have a right to disconnect? Of course! Do I feel certain employees are expected to be available? Yes! And I feel that the expectation needs to be created by the employer. Doctors aren’t on call 24/7. They may be on for one weekend and off another. Or maybe one or two nights a week. Depending on the job and the employer’s expectations, which should be clearly outlined, employees who accept the job and commit to meeting those expectations can be expected to be “on call” and answer communications. However, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Everyone deserves some disconnect time.

Liz Crawford

This is the 21st century version of “workers’ rights.”

The industrial revolution spawned unions (especially the ACWA), which demanded a five-day work week and got it. Henry Ford was another five-day work week trend setter. In today’s world, most of us don’t quite work together the same way – we have more of a freelance society, or a gig economy. Under these conditions, and in light of constant communication, the demands of a workforce need to be kept in check in another way. How much do we “owe” an employer? A client? Our whole lives?

Sanity can be achieved through cultural norms or through regulation, but let’s hope it’s the former.

Karen McNeely

Realistically, only upper management should be ever be expected to be “always on.” That said, when I’m out of the office I feel a certain comfort in knowing my staff can always get a hold of me if something urgent comes up. Sometimes a 5 minute conversation can save a whole lot of headaches when you return. Fortunately, they have a good understanding of what warrants an urgent call, text or email and what does not. In general this works better for those contacting a boss than a boss contacting an employee and either way creating the correct boundaries is important.

Larry Negrich

It’s a business decision between the employee and the employer. The government need not be involved.

Ralph Jacobson

Store-based staff tend to have less opportunity for personal time to spend online than office retail workers, so those are apples and oranges in comparison. Store staff should be able to disconnect entirely in off hours. Office staff typically have plenty of personal online time spend during the workday, so they should also have access to work email after hours.

Christopher P. Ramey

Two points:

1. There are those who stop working when they leave their office/store. Then there are those who are so passionate about their work that it’s on their mind regardless of where they may be. Generally there are rewards for the latter group.

2. The bigger issue is managers abusing employees as sport.

"No one should ever be expected to be 'always on' -- not if you want their best."
"It is surprising that France needed to pass this law. In France, work outside of work is not the norm."
"I remember a quote from the ad agency days that went something like this, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday.”"

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