I have been interested in the balance between work life and personal life since the days of my first husband’s 60 plus hour work weeks at his New York City law firm. Working so much wreaked havoc with our home life and left me, effectively, a single parent most of the time.
The issue has been magnified with the advent of the 24/7 access to work via the internet. Employers can expect their employees to be available at all hours on all days. But there is some soul searching in the corporate world over how to reasonably limit employee’s accessibility and responsibility to the office.
To manage work stress, some companies provide massages, yoga classes, nap venues, and other wellness services during the workday. This is clearly not enough. There is a horror story out of Japan where a 31-year-old worker logged 159 hours of overtime in one month and worked herself to death.
France is concerned about workers becoming more and more connected to work, online, outside of the office and outside of office hours. France also seems to be taking the lead in legislating to correct the balance between work and life. The French believe that if you limit the amount of overwork, you also limit the amount of burnout and in the process, increase productivity on the job.
France takes the forward-looking position that it is beneficial for people to have downtime away from work. The French believe that workers have the right to draw a line when employers demands interfere with evenings or weekends at home and even vacation time.
So France passed a new provision in the Labor Law that requires companies with over 50 employees, to negotiate new rules to limit work and keep it from spilling into days off and after work hours. Labor consultants have suggested that one way to limit after-hours work is to avoid the ‘reply all’ function on group emails. That way, only one person, not everyone, has to read and respond to each email.
Another suggestion to achieve better work/life balance is to set a time limit for work communications. Some firms have designated the hours from 9 PM to 7 AM or 7 PM to 7 AM as off-limits to employers.
This makes sense to me and is easy to enforce.
In Germany, in 2013, The Labor Ministry ordered its supervisors not to contact employees outside of office hours. In 2011, Volkswagen shut off their BlackBerry servers at the end of the workday.
In Britain, they are studying the use of commuting time for work by employees with long train rides twice a day. They are looking to include commuting time as hours worked since employees are still accessible to employers online on their way to and from work.
Several other European countries are proposing changes in work rules that take long commutes into account. A European Tribunal last year decided a court case that could change how work hours are calculated across the continent. It ruled that in Norway, some employees can count their commutes as work time. The ruling acknowledged that as long as you are at the disposal of your employer, you are technically at work.
Recently, France’s highest court ordered a British company to pay an employee $70,000 after the company required employees to have their phones on at all times. They were expected to answer questions from clients and subordinates at any time, day or night.
The right to disconnect is becoming a battle cry for workers all over the world. We have to learn to balance the new technologies with human values and reasonable lifestyle choices. Permanent access doesn’t mean people should have to work all the time.
It will be interesting to see how these issues get resolved in the years to come.