The right to disconnect from work: Comparing the French experience with Australia

On 31 December 2016 French Parliament passed law aimed at preserving employees’ right to disconnect from work outside of working hours.

Under the new legislation, employers with over 50 employees are required to negotiate the expectations surrounding their smartphone use outside of work. The move is aimed at preventing an unpaid ‘always-on’ culture, which often leads to heightened anxiety and burnout in employees.

1 – Lets talk numbers

Employers who are unable to come to an agreement with employees will be required to publish a charter outlining the rights and expectations of employees outside of work hours.

French business management consultancy group, ELEAS, report that in 2016 around 37% of the nation’s employees admitted to using their phone outside of working hours for work purposes on a daily basis, while 12% admitted to being burnt out.

2 – Lets look to studies.

German company, Volkswagen, has long been the poster child for promoting employee work life balance by forcing its employees to disconnect from work. It is reported that between the hours of 6:15pm and 7:15am on weekdays, and on all weekends, email servers are disabled on employee smart phones.

Even without these new measures, French laws appear to be more geared to promoting work life balance than Australia’s existing law. In Australia, the working week is capped at 38 hours, plus reasonable overtime. However a report from 2009 found that the average working week for Australians was 44 hours, with one in five Australians working over 50 hours a week. In 2016, the Australia Institute stated that Australians were owed $110 billion in unpaid overtime every year. To date Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman has agreed that 40 hours a week includes reasonable overtime, however they are yet to definitively define what would be considered unreasonable.

In contrast, France moved to reduce its working week from 39 to 35 hours in 2002, with some exceptions as to overtime. The reduction was not only aimed at improving employees’ quality of life, but also at increasing the number of jobs available through increased availability of job sharing roles. The drop was effective in reducing the average employee’s weekly hours of work, and has correlated with an increase in wages (Estevão & Sá, 2008). What’s more, France has sustained strong productivity growth since the change has been implemented (Hornberg, 2014).

3 – French ideals could work.

Not all employees are happy with the seemingly employee-friendly French approach. A study conducted in 2008 found that men, particularly in high paying managerial roles, tended to be dissatisfied with shorter working hours, while the higher pay that women received, the higher their satisfaction with reduced hours was (Estevão & Sá, 2008). Dissatisfaction with shorter hours was thought to be linked with the administrative burden associated with fewer hours, and perceived drops to quality of work.

As the law in France regarding employees’ ‘right to switch off’ has only been in place for 33 days, its impact on employee wellbeing and productivity remains to be seen. Unlike the 35-hour work-week, employees are provided with the opportunity to negotiate smart phone use outside of work. This may alleviate stress for workers who are sceptical of the effect such law might have on their quality of work, or those who value access to a flexible work schedule.

Final Point

In the meantime, Australians continue to face with long overtime hours, work burn out, and increasing stress-related absences. In light of this, it may be time that we took a page out of France’s book and had a break.

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