European countries are taking the lead with laws that protect individuals from their boss’s 11pm work email. Is it time Australia did the same?
The time spent devoted to work and time spent in our personal lives is becoming increasingly blurred. The French government has looked at the effects on wellbeing and decided this is une mauvais chose (“a bad thing”, to you and me). What they have come up with is the “right to disconnect” – a newly-created law to impose stricter rules on the way companies engage with employees outside of mandated work hours. The law seeks to minimise workplace stress and limit the use of work-related technology such as work email outside the office.
French legislator Benoit Hamon has described the law as an answer to the travails of employees who “leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog”.
It also poses a wider question: when it comes to digital communication in an increasingly porous working culture, whose responsibility is it to pull the plug? And is it HR’s?
The law has sparked impassioned responses across France. Along with critics decrying the law as a ‘ban on work-related email after hours,’ there are others who are disappointed that the law does not go far enough. For although the law requires that companies with more than 50 employees negotiate a new protocol to ensure that work doesn’t spill into after-work hours, it doesn’t have fangs to penalise companies who do not comply.
It’s worth noting that Germany has had a similar law in place since 2014. The German labor ministry’s legislation prohibits managers from calling or emailing staff after work hours, except in an emergency.
As has been widely published, academic studies show that workplace email is a significant source of stress. In the US, a study conducted by Stanford business professors estimated that workplace stress added between $125 and $190 billion dollars per year to healthcare costs, amounting to between 5 and 8% of total costs to business? Overwork accounted for $48 billion of that.
The law also speaks to the inherent tensions present in modern-day working culture, where employees must negotiate flexible workplace practices with perpetual digital connectivity. There’s an expectation that companies will begin to use ‘right to disconnect’ as a protective measure, Xavier Zunigo, a French workplace expert and director of research group Aristat, told the Telegraph newspaper in the UK. But, “at the same time, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them.”
In Australia, employers under the National Employment Standards legislation have the right to ask employees to work reasonable time beyond 38 hours.
However, legislation doesn’t stipulate in what form this may take – whether it’s at the workplace, via phone or work email. This is where the line blurs.
“Surreptitiously extending work hours by expecting employees to be on call 24/7 via work email is already in breach of Australian workplace law,” says Alan McDonald, managing director at McDonald Murholme.
So what can Australian HR take from France’s example?
In the opinion of Dr Ezaz Ahmed (CAHRI), lecturer and Head of HRM Discipline at Central Queensland University, it’s that communication about what’s acceptable works best when it’s a two-way street.
France’s new law didn’t happen in isolation, he explains, as European HR has traditionally differed from HR in Australia or Britain by placing a higher value on work-life balance.
Within the HR function, there needs to be agreement as part of the unwritten culture within an organisation, as well as written policy.
“This is a challenge for HR – how to deal with the virtual community. There need to be some rules, regulations and policies in place in organisations,” he says. And this needs to be something initiated proactively within HR and management.
However, he also recognises that often, issues can occur, despite management’s good intentions, when an ‘always on’ manager oversteps the line.
“People who are at the head of a program such as myself are always connected. Even when I’m on holidays I need to be available to approve things, I need to be able to communicate.”
“There should be some sort of loose expectations on both sides, and most of the time, if employees do their work on time there is less expectation that they will continue to receive communication after work hours.”
What have been your experiences managing digital communication out of work hours? Does your organisation have a policy in place to regulate out of work email?