What if e-mailing during your commute counted as work?

A commuter sits on a bench at the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. France.
A commuter sits on a bench at the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. France.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Should commuting hours count as part of the workday?

The suggestion - sure to raise the hackles of employers everywhere - was made by university researchers in England who studied the commuting habits of thousands of people who travel by rail.

They noted that the expansion of WiFi on trains, planes and automobiles has led to the de facto expansion of the working day, tying employees to their electronic devices as they send and receive countless work e-mails or toil away over documents after clocking out from their jobs.

More than half of those studied read their work e-mail and pored over work documents as they travelled, the researchers at the University of the West of England found.

"As an academic, nobody bothers where I do my work as long as it's done," Juliet Jain, senior research fellow at the Centre for Transport Society of the university in Bristol, said in a phone interview.

She noted that with increasing workloads, most people in the study "didn't see it as official work time, but something to make their lives easier".

Work-life balance has been a buzzy catch phrase of the modern era, where employers provide office massages to pound way the stresses of their employees.

But amid the pivot to an emphasis on "wellness" come alarming tales like that of a 31-year-old Japanese worker who clocked in more than 159 hours of overtime in one month and worked herself to death.

In Japan, napping in the office is common and a sign of diligence, but officials have moved to crack down on overworking.

Last year (2017), France, which already has a 35-hour workweek, introduced a law requiring large companies to give their employers the right to disconnect and block e-mails outside work hours.

Similar limits have been tested elsewhere.

In 2013, the German Labour Ministry ordered its supervisors not to contact employees outside office hours. And in 2011, Volkswagen began shutting off its BlackBerry servers at the end of the workday, stopping some employees in Germany from sending or receiving e-mails.

In Britain, workers spend an hour on average to get to and from their jobs - more around London - but not everyone is able to be productive in a busy rail car, where the temptation of games like Candy Crush and video streaming may be too strong.

"It's not everybody's cup of tea," Jain said.

She said that speaking to commuters made her wonder whether there were "some hidden amounts of productivity going on because it's not officially work time".

Over 40 weeks in 2016 and 2017, the university team studied 5,000 commuters who travelled up to 400km a day for work on two busy lines that run northwest from London to Birmingham and Aylesbury.

The workers were scrutinised for their use of free wireless Internet on the routes. Initially focused on business travellers, the team found that commuters were using their trips to get work done. The longer the route, the more work was done.

Fifty-four per cent of commuters on the longer route - Birmingham to London - and 36 per cent on the shorter one - Aylesbury to London - were checking and sending work e-mails during the trip.

The team's conclusions were presented to the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday (Aug 30).

Jain said that the commuting study was still in its exploratory stage. Any changes in the length of the workweek would have to come from the British government.

But several European countries have proposed regulatory changes to take account of longer commutes and the seemingly permanent availability of mobile Internet.

And a court case decided before a European tribunal last year could affect how working time is calculated across the continent.

The tribunal ruled that in Norway, some employees could count their commute as working time - the rationale being that while they may not be, strictly speaking, working, they are at the disposal of their employer.

This summer, France's highest court ordered a British company to pay one of its workers in France 60,000 euros (S$95,880) in compensation, after the company required employees to have their phones on at all times to answer questions and complaints from clients and subordinates.

Alexandra Sabbe-Ferri, a lawyer in Paris who specialises in workers' rights, said in a phone interview that though the case concerned on-call duty rather than the right to disconnect, it was a signal for both companies and workers to take personal time seriously.

"The right to disconnect is reminding everyone that we ought to have a reasonable attitude to new technologies," Sabbe-Ferri said. "Having permanent access doesn't mean that we should be working all the time."

For now, however, the French regulation on the right to disconnect exists only in theory, until the courts interpret it, she added.