Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

The working world

The Working World: France gave workers the right to disconnect—but is it helping?


Published on February 26, 2019

Some days seem like an endless stream of pings from the minute you wake ‘til the minute you pass out with your phone in your hand.

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In fact, according to a 2018 Nielsen report, we spend over 11 hours a day interacting with media. It’s enough to make you wonder if we’re more devoted to our devices than to our own well-being. If constant connection is bringing us to the brink of burnout, what’s the solution? 

Recently, workers have been raising their voices, and in some countries, lawmakers are listening. In August 2016, France enacted the El Khomri Law. This officially gave workers the right to disconnect. But is the law enough to make real change in the workplace? 

In our new series, “The Working World,” we’re looking at how different cultures deal with the challenges of modern work, and how countries are adapting to address the problems. In part one, we explored how Japan’s work style reform laws are affecting office life for everyone from temps to executives.

Here in part two, we’ll look at the impact of France’s “Right to Disconnect” law—and how well it’s delivering on its promise.

“In France, the economic crisis of 2007 reinforced the pressure on workers. This resulted in less employment and more work for those with a job."—Héloïse Boungnasith

What drove the demands?

The downsides of perpetual connection are obvious. Employees feel overwhelmed by the pressure to respond at all hours and health-related issues are on the rise. Turns out, having the freedom to work from anywhere doesn’t always feel like freedom.

We’ve lost the boundary between our professional and personal lives. Mobile devices removed what was once one of the best excuses to unplug: You had to drive to work and drive back home. Now we can’t even count on our commutes to disconnect us. 

Weekends aren’t an oasis anymore, either. When you feel the need to be reachable on Saturday and Sunday, it’s hard not to feel obligated to check your messages to see if anything urgent has come up. Now most people use one phone for both their professional and personal lives. So work can follow us everywhere.

We traded a natural separation for the promise of convenience. As a result, we’re not resting and recuperating like we used to, and sometimes we return to work on Monday worse than when we left on Friday. 

Workers around the world face this problem.

“In France, the economic crisis of 2007 reinforced the pressure on workers," says Héloïse Boungnasith, French Language Specialist at Dropbox. “This resulted in less employment and more work for those with a job—the price of maintaining the same level of productivity.”

One year after its implementation, some question whether the law is too vague to be effective.

The rising pressure on employees has taken a terrible toll—including some work-related suicides. People began calling for action from the government. And in 2015, French Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri commissioned a study of the health impact of “info-obesity.”

The following year, France adopted the “El Khomri” law, popularly known as the “right to disconnect.” It became famous for supposedly forbidding work email after 6:00 pm—but the reality is a lot more complicated.

The law calls for "a regulation for the use of digital tools in order to ensure the respect of rest and leave time, as well as personal and family life." One year after its implementation, though, some question whether the law is too vague to be effective—and whether this legislation can truly have a lasting impact on longstanding work habits.

Can the problem be solved by a law?

France has a history of trying to legislate a work-life balance for employees. Nearly two decades ago, the statutory work week was reduced to 35 hours per week with a law that also called for mandatory overtime pay when employees go over the limit. 

However, it’s a misconception that French people work 35 hours a week, says Boungnasith.

“The 35-hour week applies to non-executive staff only,” explains Boungnasith. “It doesn’t prevent them from working more than 35 hours per week. It’s just that if they do, they are paid extra. Also, employers can agree on a longer working week with their employees. Actually, 71,4% of French employees work more than 35 hours a week according to a Randstad study.”

To keep from crossing the line, managers are striving to be extra clear about what needs an immediate response. 

Just as the 35-hour law doesn’t mean that most people work from 9-4, the “Right to Disconnect” law hasn’t relegated nights and weekends to leisure time. And there’s debate on whether that would even be the outcome every worker wants. 

How are companies reacting?

There are already signs that breaking the law can carry consequences. In July 2018, a former France-based employee of a British pest control company was awarded €60,000 for being required to be on call if issues arose. To keep from crossing the line, managers are striving to be extra clear about what needs an immediate response. 

Even though several court decisions condemned employers who didn’t respect employees’ rest time as a violation of the “Code du travail,” the El Khomri law itself doesn’t impose sanctions on companies that decide not to implement it.

And so far, only a few businesses have—some have even gone backwards. According to Le Monde, Canon in 2010, and Sodexo in 2013, didn't follow through with their initiatives for a day without emails. Until a law includes specific sanctions for its violation, many remain skeptical that there will be real change. 

"More often than not, when you work for an international company and you work across time zones, you’re still compelled to work beyond 6:00 pm.”—Micha Sprinz

How are workers responding?

“People feel protected by it,” says Micha Sprinz, who works in Marketing Communications at Dropbox France. “But, more often than not, when you work for an international company and you work across time zones, you’re still compelled to work beyond 6:00 pm.”

Sprinz says one flaw in the law is that it seeks to empower employees by putting clean-cut time limits on what is work and what is private. “The reality that is increasingly being recognized is that the two are intertwined. People need to be free to look after personal things during the working day and work things during non-work hours if that is, in fact, what suits them.”

Boungnasith agrees and believes this is why the law is not a viable solution.

“Each individual must be free to work the way that makes the most sense for them,” says Boungnasith. “For instance, if I had kids, I would prefer to leave work early and pick them up from school, spend time with them, and start working again later during the day. How can you do that if you’re not supposed to access your emails after 6:00 pm?”

Although she can understand why the law was passed, Boungnasith says that having the right to disconnect hasn’t affected her working life at all. 

“In France, most companies still have a very traditional mindset when it comes to work and work practices,” Boungnasith explains. “I’m lucky enough to work for a company that is committed to employee well-being, so nobody would require me to work after hours. But for my friends, who work for French companies, it’s a different world. Almost all of them work much later than me.”

Boungnasith says she thinks the law is counterproductive as is, and that the real answer to this problem would be for French companies to change their mindset. But she thinks there’s a long way to go. “Even working from home is not common practice in France yet,” she adds. 

The ripple effect around the world

Though its impact in France remains to be seen, the right to disconnect law has inspired many other nations to follow suit. The National Law Review reports Italy now requires employers to clarify how responsive workers need to be beyond regular working hours.

The Philippines, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, India, Québec, and the federal government of Canada are all following in France’s footsteps and granting their workers similar rights to disconnect. In November 2018, Spain adopted a “Data Protection and Digital Rights Act.” Even New York is working on its own Right to Disconnect bill

With growing interest like this, it’s tempting to think governments will be able to legislate a better way of working. But it’s a complex issue that goes beyond our dependence on devices. Political, economic, and cultural forces—not to mention personal preferences—make it hard to find a solution that satisfies everyone.

One law won’t cure burnout. Real change may only come when companies prioritize employee experience as highly as customer experience and productivity. Then employees and companies may be able to build a new relationship with work that’s less draining and more fulfilling.