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The truth behind the French ‘no email after work' story

The truth behind the French ‘no email after work’ story

A collective agreement in France has established the principle that there needs to be a 'disconnect' in work communications once workers have signed off for the day. Prospect research officer Calvin Allen asks whether this a regulatory advance worth following or a triumph of state-backed micro-management.

The new agreement, covering around 250,000 daily-paid consultants in systems engineering and IT, might not have been the “French law requiring workers to switch off their work phones after 6pm” that journalists first trumpeted.

Indeed, the story was not welcomed by French commentators  on the grounds that it pandered to the stereotypes about French workers.

A French article on the issue is as good a source of the facts as any. It reports that French trade unions CFDT and CGC have reached a new agreement with the employer associations Syntec and Cinov. (There's also an English version in The Local.)

The agreement requires workers covered by the agreement to do little more than abide by the requirements of the law – which, of course, extend across the EU – for a minimum daily rest period of 11 hours. It appears to have been mandated by a court decision that previous practices did not sufficiently take care of workers' health and safety.

In as flexible a way as possible, it requires employees to step away from their work for a minimum of 11 hours per day; it doesn't ban emails after 6pm or ban employees taking work files home with them.

Clearly, this agreement is less ambitious in practice than the headlines have suggested.

On the other hand the law (or agreement) is a step forward in establishing good practice – and, of course, a trade union taking a step-by-step approach to facilitating employees making changes in their work practices now has something that it can build on.

Even in its existing form, the agreement represents progress. It puts a line in the sand but, more than that, re-establishes the principle that the minimum daily rest period is sacrosanct.

From there, it's only a short step to realising what other principles are also important – like doing the work for which you get paid and not putting in countless additional hours; or that you do not have to log on to check emails outside your working hours; or that your senior managers do not own you and do not have the right to demand that you respond to their requests in your own time.

In doing that, it may start to change actual practice at a level far above the number of workers covered by the agreement.

While most readers here probably do get the minimum daily rest period set out in the working time directive (11 hours), Prospect surveys show that some do not. And, as managers and professionals, we all know the realities of the always-on worker.

As a small step towards taking that time back, if you are in this boat, at least recognise the principle that once you have logged off, that's it for the day. You can find other tools which Prospect has devised to help you in the WorkTime YourTime area of the website – but, once you've drawn that line in the sand, the apparently inexorable pressures towards being always-on become that little bit easier to control.