French workers win 'right to disconnect'

Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri introduced a new measure to tackle the so-called "always-on" work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime.
Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri introduced a new measure to tackle the so-called "always-on" work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime. PHOTO: AFP

New law follows report warning about health impact of 'info-obesity' at workplaces

PARIS • French companies were required to guarantee a "right to disconnect" to their employees from yesterday as the country seeks to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of- hours e-mail checking.

A new employment law entered into force, obliging organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones.

Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout and sleeplessness to relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.

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.

"There's a real expectation that companies will seize on the 'right to disconnect' as a protective measure," said Dr Xavier Zunigo, a French workplace expert, as a new survey on the subject was published in October. "At the same time, workers don't want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them."

STRIKING A BALANCE

There's a real expectation that companies will seize on the 'right to disconnect' as a protective measure. At the same time, workers don't want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them.

DR XAVIER ZUNIGO, a French workplace expert, on how work habits may affect the new law's enforcement.

The measure was introduced by Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, who commissioned a report submitted two years ago which warned about the health impact of the "info-obesity" afflicting many workplaces.

Under the new law, companies are obliged to negotiate with employees on their rights to switch off and ways they can reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives.

If a deal cannot be reached, the company must publish a charter to make explicit the demands on and rights of employees after hours.

Trade unions in France, which see themselves as guardians of France's highly protected workplace and famously short 35-hour working week, have long demanded action.

But the new "right to disconnect", part of a much larger and controversial reform of French labour law, foresees no sanction for companies which fail to define it.

Left-leaning French newspaper Liberation praised the move in an editorial last Friday, saying that the law was needed because "employees are often judged on their commitment to their companies and their availability".

Large companies such as Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany and nuclear power company Areva and insurer Axa in France have already taken steps to limit out-of- hours messaging to reduce burnout among workers.

Measures include cutting e-mail connections in the evening and on weekends or even automatically destroying e-mails sent to employees while they are on holiday.

A study published by French research group Eleas last October showed that more than a third of French workers used their devices to do work after hours every day. Around 60 per cent of workers were in favour of regulation to clarify their rights.

But University College London work-life balance expert Anna Cox said companies must take into account demands from employees for both protection and flexibility.

"For some people, they want to work for two hours every evening, but want to be able to switch off between 3pm and 5pm when they pick their kids up and are cooking dinner," she told AFP.

Others are happy to use their daily commute to get ahead before they arrive in the office, she explained.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'French workers win 'right to disconnect''. Print Edition | Subscribe