Although stress in the workplace is acknowledged as a major concern, the rise of smartphones and tablets has meant work related stress is no longer confined to the office. Business related texts, emails, phone calls and social media messages can alert you at all times, meaning that genuine ‘free time’ can seem like a thing of the past. Even when attempts are made to disconnect over weekends and holidays, they can be met with resistance and result in hours spent catching up on emails, sending apologetic responses to urgent missed messages.
To tackle this culture, France has recently taken a bold step to encourage its citizens to disconnect outside of office hours, enshrining leisure time in legislation. Article 25 of the hotly disputed new ‘El Khomri’ law, named after the French Minister of Labour, focuses on the issue, acknowledging that communication technologies can have negative effects if they are not subject to adequate management. The new legislative measures stipulate that companies with 50 or more employees are to set guidelines for when staff should not send or reply to emails.
But what are the perceived benefits of protecting workers off the clock? And, despite the extra stress caused, is today’s “always on” culture really bad for business?
In short, yes. While on paper it may look like you’re gaining extra time and effort from an individual by stretching the working day, you’re actually worsening the quality and quantity of the work they can deliver. Studies undertaken by academics and practitioners within HR and other areas of management have spoken unanimously to say that work related stress has increased significantly over the years. For instance, UK based charity The Mental Health Foundation has stated that an increasingly demanding work culture is the biggest threat to mental health. Stress arising from work already costs the UK over 10 million working days every year, and puts an excessive strain on people’s personal relationships. Based on the costs associated with all that time off, let alone with sink in productivity and wellbeing, it may only be a matter of time before IT managers across the globe are expected to implement similar measures to the French.
There’s also other beneficial measures to consider too, with flexi-working being another widely regarded positive. By empowering employees to work at times when they are at their most productive, and to benefit from exercise when they see fit, the stresses and strains of the modern workplace are better alleviated. It also reduces the conflict between professional and personal responsibilities, and can lower overhead costs through allowing employees to work from home.
Then there’s the results from seen from Sweden, where a 6-hour working day is being adopted, which indicate that productivity and happiness can both be improved by altering the work-life balance in favour of leisure time.
Nevertheless, despite these positive notions, the French legislation may not have an impact as significant as hoped. Though it may be argued that it is important for the legislation to be vague in order to allow for application across companies with differing needs, the ambiguity found in Article 25 regarding enforcement may in fact be a real issue when it comes to implementation. Without a penalty for companies who ignore the measures, the acceptance and adoption of these new legislative measures relies solely on good will and barriers will inevitably be raised.
The most prominent of which is the age of globalization we find ourselves in. Many work for transnational corporations, or have clients around the world, and therefore communicate with people from other time zones on a daily basis. Encouraging employees to spend more time offline may not be desirable, or even feasible for many of these companies. Turning off servers outside office hours, as Volkswagen do, may simply not be an option.
However, in the face of these obstacles, the French experiment will provide a valuable insight into the psyche of employers and employees when it comes to wellbeing. As it’s such a hot topic, seeing who puts their words into actions, and why, will offer invaluable lessons to the global community – which can only be a good thing.
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