The Right to Disconnect

Maia Usui

Maia Usui is a student at Harvard Law School.

In the digitally connected workplace, it’s not easy to be “off the clock.”  Email — coupled with the widespread use of smartphones — has made many employees available at a moment’s notice.  In the United States, one in three full-time workers check their work email “frequently” outside of normal working hours.  Many report checking their inbox at the dinner table, or even in the middle of the night.  The 9-to-5 job is becoming more like 24/7.

This breakdown of work/life boundaries has led to strong calls for reform.  France recently enacted a new law establishing “the right to disconnect” outside of work hours.  And some companies have already banned the use of email when workers are off-duty.  These efforts signal an important shift in attitudes toward work-life balance.  But the problem of workplace technology is more complicated than these solutions might suggest.  “Work-life balance” looks different for different individuals.  In an attempt to strengthen the boundaries between the professional and the personal, policies insisting on a “right to disconnect” could be making those boundaries too rigid for workers who seek flexibility instead.

Technology and the 24/7 Workday

For many workers, it can be hard to punch out when their inbox is always — literally — right at their fingertips.  Research shows that, with the widespread use of smartphones and other devices, more and more employees are feeling technologically tethered to their work.  In a 2014 Gallup poll of over 3,000 full-time workers, 36% reported checking their work email “frequently” outside of normal work hours.  And more recent studies show that that percentage could be on the rise.  Last year, in a survey of over 9,000 individuals, 57% reported spending up to an hour checking their email outside of work; 35% reported spending even more time.  For some, it’s a round-the-clock habit: over one third said they’ve woken up to check email in the night.

This constant connectivity has been linked to higher levels of stress and burnout.  In the Gallup poll just mentioned, nearly half of the workers who said they “frequently” checked their email also reported experiencing more stress than those who “rarely” or “never” did.  Researchers at the University of California at Irvine and the University of British Columbia have found in separate studies that limiting the number of times workers can check their inboxes reduces stress.  Other studies show that even when employees aren’t actively monitoring their inboxes, the fear of receiving an after-hours message — the dreaded push notification — is still a constant source of stress.  In one recent survey, 67% of American workers reported having experienced “phantom rings,” thinking that someone was trying to get in touch with them even when they weren’t needed.

Separating Work and Life

These numbers paint an alarming picture, of a 24/7 work culture where workers are never truly “off the clock.”  But as the boundaries between work and life have blurred, regulators and employers are taking steps to restore them.

In January, the French government gave workers “the right to disconnect.”  The nationwide mandate grew out of mounting public concerns over the effect of technology on workers’ health and well-being.  In the words of one French legislator: “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work.  They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog.”  The resulting law requires companies with more than 50 workers to negotiate with employees and agree on a written policy governing after-hours email.  These policies could include measures such as training for managers, guarantees that employees won’t be punished for not responding to emails, or outright bans on after-hours communication.

While it might be tempting to dismiss the law as “typically French” — an unsurprising development in a country that already has grandes vacances and a 35-hour workweek — France is not alone.  Other governments are moving in a similar direction: Germany has for years been considering an “anti-stress” law that would, among other measures, ban after-hours email.  South Korea, meanwhile, has launched a public campaign discouraging bosses from contacting their staff after they’ve left the office.

Employers are also taking steps to cut their employees’ technological “leashes.”  Workers at Daimler can sign up to have their emails automatically deleted over the holidays.  Volkswagen turns off its Blackberry servers so that employees don’t receive emails after their shift is done.  And one French IT firm has even banned internal email entirely.

In Search of Flexible Boundaries

These new efforts are an encouraging sign, pointing to an increased awareness of the dangers of workplace technology.  But the simplicity of some of these solutions — such as the absolute bans on after-hours email — belie the complexity of the problem.  Where to strike the balance between work and life is an intensely personal decision that varies from one worker to the next.  For some, technology can be a “leash.”  For others, it can be an important source of flexibility.  Pushing all workers to “disconnect” in the same way could harm those who thrive the most in the digital workplace.

Women, in particular, stand to benefit from the flexibility afforded by workplace technology.  Despite shifting cultural attitudes, many women still find themselves juggling their work with significant family commitments.  A recent survey conducted by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org confirmed that working women are responsible for a greater share of housework and childcare than men.  Because of these additional responsibilities, women are uniquely positioned to benefit from greater flexibility in their work.  In fact, the data suggests that women not only seek out flexible work environments — 70% of working mothers say that a flexible working schedule is “extremely important,” compared to less than half of working fathers — but also thrive in them.  Some economists have argued that flexible working arrangements are the key to closing the gender pay gap.

A key aspect of flexibility is, of course, the freedom to choose where and when to work.  In recent years, technology has expanded those options for women, allowing them to work from home or during unconventional hours.  And it’s not just women who benefit — according to Gallup, nearly eight out of ten full-time workers view the ability to work remotely outside of normal working hours as a “positive development” in their lives.  For many, the option to work after hours has created much-needed flexibility during working hours.  As recent studies show, those who often log in after hours are more likely to feel comfortable taking time off during the regular workday to handle personal or family matters.  Against this background, measures that require workers to “disconnect” can be overly restrictive if they assume — as many of them do — a fixed work schedule.  The risk is that, in an attempt to abandon a 24/7 work culture, we will end up back in a rigid 9-to-5.

What is clear is that the problem of workplace technology is a complex one — one that resists simple, one-size-fits-all solutions.  In their efforts to strengthen the boundaries between work and life, regulators and employers should be careful not to over-determine those boundaries, and instead leave workers with the flexibility to strike that balance on their own.  More than the right to disconnect, what workers need is the right to decide for themselves.

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