Will France's 'right of disconnecting' actually work?

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An agreement has been signed between French employers and unions that means engineers and consulting workers no longer have to answer work phone calls or e-mails after 6pm, if they are not in the office.

The rule was introduced so that about one million people who work in the digital and consultancy world remain protected by the French 35-hour working week. In theory, between 9am and 6pm for those who rely on digital media it is business as usual, but at 6:01pm, a French worker can sip their beer safe in the knowledge that their evening won’t be disturbed.

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? No constant business worries ruining evening plans; a work-life balance that is in check; and potentially even improved health and wellbeing. Workers will be refreshed and ready to face the onslaught of messages at 9am.

But will it work? How will it be enforced? And can our desire for a rigid work-life balance and our increased want for flexible working practices be balanced?

In the UK we do have Working Hours Regulations in line with the European Working Time Directive, which officially means that we should not work over 48 hours a week. This was introduced to ensure adequate rest periods, improve the health and safety of workers, and to allow for sufficient work-life balance. However, a caveat in the directive means that people, should they wish, can opt out of this — implying some kind of choice.

When this was introduced, some organisations struggled (notably the NHS) especially when considering the impact on junior doctors. Although their working hours reduced from 80 and over, shift patterns had to change, increasing the proportion of out-of-hours work they do, increasing fatigue, and reducing their access to training. In addition, they had to opt out of the 48-hour week, so there were enough doctors manning the wards to ensure patient safety. Did this improve their work-life balance and quality of working life? Probably not. Was this easy to enforce and manage? No. Could it have had an impact on organisational outcomes and quality of care? Probably, yes. This highlights the practical challenges of implementing ideal work conditions in the reality of organisational systems.

Then we have the question of flexible employment. In July this year, the right to request flexible employment will be extended to all employees. Flexible requests can include a change in working hours or location, job-sharing, compressed hours, term-time working, flexi-time, just to name a few.

The need for flexible employment is becoming more prominent with the issues of delivering both child and elderly care. Given that organisations are changing with the need to provide us a 24-hour service, it remains to be seen whether implementing an e-mail ban is useful, helpful, or even sensible. How about people who rely on out-of-hours messages: people working on call, abroad, and across time-zones?

Many people can access work emails on their phone. When out of the office, if I hear the distinct tone of a work e-mail, I will take a glance and if it’s urgent I reply. If not, then it waits until the morning. If I am out enjoying myself then I won’t even look. Personally, I feel restrictions mean an individual does not even have a choice. If the importance of developing a healthy work-life balance is a value in every organisation, then such restrictions are unnecessary. And so, that should be the priority instead.

Zofia Bajorek is a researcher with The Work Foundation

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