Right to disconnect

Digital technology puts a world of information at our fingertips, but it also allows bosses to reach into their workers’ personal time with unprecedented ease. It has become the norm for many employees to respond to work emails after business hours. While that may seem like an increase in productivity, in reality, it is reportedly having harmful effects on worker well-being.

Our smartphones tether us to our 9-to-5 jobs 24/7. We’re online, all the time. Day and night. Weekday and weekend. Technology, supposed to make our lives easier, has made it a lot more complicated. Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness as well as relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.

BBC reports that the French employees are getting the legal right to avoid work emails outside working hours. The new law, which has been dubbed the right to disconnect, comes into force on 1 January 2017. Companies with more than 50 workers will be obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

The French measure is intended to tackle the so-called “always-on” work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime — while also giving employees flexibility to work from outside the office. Can we have a similar application of the “right to disconnect” in developing countries, like India?

The biggest impediment in developing countries is the fact that in their story of development there currently exists a fiercely competitive attitude, both in terms of access to factors of production and the top-line/bottom-line performance.

Company initiatives directed towards helping employees build a strong balance between the work they do and their lives outside work would decrease employee burnout and stress-related outcomes on physical and mental health. This is evident with the host of companies introducing flexible work schedules with ‘work from home’ options to policies which allow employees to work from anywhere anyplace till the work is done in a timely manner.

In 2014, the German vehicle-maker Daimler set up an optional service for workers going on holiday; instead of sending an out-of-office reply, they could opt to have all new emails automatically deleted while they were away.

Using email is one of the most common online activities in the world today. Yet, very little experimental research has examined the effect of email on well-being. There is some research that backs up the French government’s claims.

As per NPR, a study out of the University of British Columbia found that participants who were assigned to check their email only three times a day were found to be less stressed than those who could check their emails continuously.

Another study out of Colorado State University found that even the anticipatory stress of expecting after-hours emails might have a negative effect on our well-being.

Aside from well-being, experts say that employers should consider the effects digital exhaustion can have on workers’ productivity, which could impact the bottom line. There is certainly more research to be done, and perhaps once the French law is in place, we will have the makings of a real world “experiment.”

With or without the imposition of a law governing email usage, the working habits of millions of people will be very difficult to change.