It’s a new year and in France, that means a new law that might make you wish you lived there. Starting Jan. 1, French workers have the legal “right to disconnect.” What that means is that they don’t need to read or respond to emails at all hours of the day and night.
The law, which was drafted and passed last year, goes into effect at a time when people all over the world are questioning the value of technologies that, though intended to simplify our lives, have in some ways made us more likely to simply work… all the time. In France, where there had been a set working week of 35 hours since 2000, a study done last October found that more than one-third of people checked their email after hours, and that over 60 percent of the population supported legislation to regulate what they saw as “hidden hours.”
"These measures are designed to ensure respect for rest periods,” the minister of labor, Myriam El Khomri, said in a statement, and to encourage “balance between work and family and personal life.” The law requires any company with 50 or more employees to negotiate “out of office” email guidelines with its staff. French unions have been pushing for a measure like this, and some French companies already have enacted their own policies regarding vacation and work emails.
By contrast, the average, fully employed American adult works about 47 hours a week, according to a recent Gallup poll, and almost 40 percent reported working more than 50 hours a week. Americans also get a lot less vacation than their French counterparts: The average person in the US gets 15 vacation days a year while full-timers in France are guaranteed (by law) five weeks of vacation per year. A well-known study published by the American Psychological Association in 2013 found that about 50 percent of Americans checked their email after hours, when they were sick, and only slightly less so when on vacation.
The difference in bringing about legislation may come down to perspective. Unlike in France where workers complained that all-hours email was interfering with their personal lives and that they weren’t being compensated for the work, Americans in the APA study reported that this allowed them to be “more productive,” and that it added flexibility to their schedules. It’s also possible, of course, that Americans just like spending time with their families a lot less than the French do.