SMITH BRAIN TRUST — If you reflexively check your work email before you’re even out of bed in the morning, and just before you close your eyes to sleep, and at nonstop intervals in between, this story is for you. In France, workers are being given the “right to disconnect” outside working hours, thanks to a new law that went into effect on Jan. 1. The law doesn’t ban work-related email outside work hours, per se. But it does require companies with more than 50 employees to establish email-free hours, typically evenings and weekends.
The French government has said that the intervention was a necessary step to protect the health and wellbeing of the country’s workers. The demand for around-the-clock communication, officials said, yields unhealthy doses of stress.
“France is trying to deal with those unintended consequences of our digital lives — such as health, safety and psychological issues associated with digital fixation,” says J. Gerald Suarez, professor of the practice in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
The smartphone era has given us constant connectedness to the office through email, messaging apps, calendar notifications and more. It means that we can leave the office with less worry about missing a connection, but it also means that many of us never truly disconnect from our work. It’s there constantly, in our pockets, in our handbags, at our fingertips.
That’s good and bad, studies have found. Researchers from Colorado State University found that employees experience stress and exhaustion just knowing that an important work-related email could intrude on any hour of the day. But many of us were already working extended hours before the advent of mobile technology.
Nicole M. Coomber, a Smith School lecturer of management and organization, worked in Paris about 15 years ago at a fashion magazine. She said the workdays frequently ran late into the evening to facilitate collaboration with New York-based colleagues. The time zones are five hours apart. Those time-zone compromises are increasingly common across industries, and exacerbated by the ubiquitous nature of smartphones, which keep us connected at all hours.
“It is one of the ripple effects of globalization — the need to work across multiple time zones. Because of this, what we consider a workday has become diffused,” says Suarez, a fellow in the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the Smith School and the author of “Leader of One: Shaping Your Future through Imagination and Design,” which devotes a chapter to the the value of disconnecting.
With the ability to remain connected anytime, anywhere, many professionals have developed a dependency on the technology, he says. “It’s an addiction," he says. "You can no longer discern, ‘Is this email urgent?’ Because it’s there in front of you, you are compelled to take action.”
With many people today using smartphones as alarm clocks, the devices are right at our bedsides. “You wake up in the middle of the night and check the time, and if you see an email, you feel you need to reply," Suarez says. "It’s digital sweatshop. And no one is saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Might France’s email-free hours be a trend that catches on in the U.S.? “It would be great to say yes. But no, it won’t,” says Coomber, associate director of the QUEST Honors Program at the Smith School. The U.S. has long embraced a workaholic culture, one in which many people prize the importance of being busy and where many workers don’t even take the vacation time they're allowed.
But there’s value in email-free hours, Coomber says, and managers can help foster that kind of culture even if their company or their government doesn’t. As a boss, consider what time it is when you send emails around to your team, she says. “If you’re the boss and you’re sending emails at 3 a.m., everyone is going to respond to that,” Coomber says. “It becomes the culture. It sets a tone.”
Suarez says he sometimes works late hours, but if he’s writing an email, he schedules it to be delivered during regular work hours. When he sees an email from a student or colleague late in the evening, he considers carefully whether it requires a late-hour reply.
Coomber takes it a step further. She keeps her email closed throughout much of the workday, and has disabled her email notifications. She checks her email just three times a day. “Your inbox, it takes up more time that you think,” she says.
Coomber carries a smartphone, but it spends most of the day in her handbag. She wears an Apple Watch, but has narrowly restricted what notifications it displays. Messages from her spouse, her kids’ caregivers and teachers, and few others reach her wrist.
“In a world that is rewarding progress and advancement, it’s harder for people to slow down," Suarez says. "We need time for reflection. We need time to appreciate life itself. Busy-ness is not a badge of honor. Just because you are running in all directions doesn’t mean you are advancing.”
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