While most people leave work physically at around 5pm each day, the age of technology means that a large number of employees remain mentally checked in to their jobs at all times. We live in a society that is largely glued to our smartphones, where we can switch between work and social life with the swipe of a fingertip. We make ourselves constantly available to take a call or fire off a quick email, and many of us use the same devices for both work and personal life. The use of this technology may seem like this is having a relatively low impact on our downtime, but what toll is it really taking on our mental health? If an employee is on holiday or away from work but able to receive work-related communications, is there a certain implied expectation that they should go beyond their contracted hours and respond? This issue has recently been addressed in an interesting provision pushed through by the French Government and is definitely something worth thinking about in the context of our country’s own employment law.

“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 texts, the messages, the emails – they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

The right to disconnect

France has recently enacted a raft of law reforms that have sparked major protest due to their significant deregulation of French employment law. The reforms were forced through under a rarely used executive power, allowing the French Government to pass the bill without any parliamentary debate. However, buried within these controversial new laws is a ground-breaking update in the relationship between employment law and technology and a victory for the rights of French workers. Article 25 of the ‘El Khomri’ law has introduced the right of workers to disconnect, stating: “The development of information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers. Among them, the burden of work and the informational overburden, the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life, are risks associated with the usage of digital technology.”

While ill-informed journalists have produced a flurry of headlines claiming that France has now made after-hours work emails ‘illegal’, Article 25 is more flexible than an outright ban (which would be unhelpful and practically unenforceable). Instead, this new law provides that companies larger than 50 people must draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails. This provision serves to empower employees in larger companies to negotiate limits on responding to work emails when they are off the clock.

Through this legislation, France is a world leader in recognising the hold that email can have on many workers, along with nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile phone contact) and similar technology-related anxiety disorders that are becoming increasingly common. Before technology, traditional courtesy would generally stop a boss or colleague from knocking on your door or calling after hours for a work-related issue unless it was absolutely urgent. Now, with the multitude of new ways to communicate, these courtesies have been broken down, leading to a common attitude that it is perfectly acceptable to talk work while outside of working hours.

The dangers of tech-induced stress

A constant fear that our work performance will suffer by switching off during our own time is not a healthy way to live. It is largely acknowledged that there is far more work-related stress in modern-day life, and this stress is constant. Benoît Hamon of the French National Assembly stated, “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 texts, the messages, the emails – they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.” Tremendous risks have been identified by a lack of downtime from work and the inability to switch off. Anxiety, depression, sleeping disorders, a lack of productivity and relationship breakdowns are all results of the unhealthy work attitude many employees have adopted due to the technological blurring of personal and professional borders. Work-related stress can also lead to fatal conditions such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease. This ‘virtual insecurity’ created through making ourselves available to deal with work matters at any time is a significant and increasing problem in workforces around the world.

Disconnecting in New Zealand

A Statistics NZ survey in 2012 showed that one in five Kiwi workers struggle with work-related stress and one in 10 are unhappy with their work-life balance. But the idea of implementing a right to disconnect within our own law is not without problems. For New Zealand businesses that have international clients and work across many time zones, a legally enforced right to disconnect could be difficult to implement and commercially disadvantageous. Also, in some cases, flexibility is needed, and technology enables people such as working parents to work from home around their family schedule. However, a flexible approach to disconnection that is regulated by companies themselves through their own policies, like the French law provides, could allow for a company to cater for their workers’ needs while still setting boundaries to protect employee stress levels and the sanctuary of private life.

In avoiding the legal conundrums that the introduction of such a right could create, it may be more pertinent to focus instead on changing the attitudes of businesses functioning within New Zealand. It is much more beneficial for a company to proactively address stress through placing an emphasis on work-life balance within company cultures and working environments rather than waiting for the inevitable burnout of its employees. Along with France, Germany has been one of the pioneering countries in recognising and addressing this type of stress through company policy. In 2014, under new guidelines intended to prevent employees from burning out, the German Labour Ministry banned its managers from calling or emailing staff outside of set hours, except in emergencies. Many private German companies have followed suit, such as automotive corporation Daimler, which has an optional auto-delete corporate policy for emails received while employees are away on holiday. After complaints from its staff that they were receiving too many emails at home, Volkswagen now shuts down its email servers after hours so that employees will not receive emails on their personal devices.

While New Zealand’s law remains silent regarding after-work contact, we need to recognise a moral obligation on employers to clarify and regulate this issue. The encroachment of the internet into all aspects of our lives is greatly affecting the work-life balance required to remain mentally and physically healthy. It is time to start resetting the boundaries that have been removed by technology and update our attitudes to reflect the stress risks of the modern-day worker.