French workers can now legally ignore emails from their boss after office hours

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 12:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 10:09pm

That 10pm email from your boss? It’s your right to ignore it.

That Saturday ping from a colleague with “just one quick question?” A response on Monday should suffice.

If you’re in France, that is.

French workers rang in the new year as well as a “right to disconnect” law that grants them the legal right to ignore work emails outside typical working hours.

Employees physically leave the office, but ... they remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog
Benoit Hamon, French MP

The new employment law requires French companies with more than 50 employees to begin drawing up policies with their workers about limiting work-related technology usage outside the office.

The motivation behind the legislation is to stem work-related stress that increasingly leaks into people’s personal time – and hopefully prevent employee burnout, French officials said.

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog,” Benoit Hamon, Socialist member of parliament and former French education minister, told the BBC in May. “The texts, the messages, the emails: They colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

France has had a 35-hour work week since 2000, but the policy came under scrutiny recently given France’s near-record-high unemployment rate.

The “right to disconnect” provision was packaged with new and controversial reforms introduced last year that were designed to relax some of the country’s strict labour regulations. The amendment regarding ignoring work emails was included by French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, who reportedly was inspired by similar policies at Orange, a French telecommunications company.

“There are risks that need to be anticipated, and one of the biggest risks is the balance of a private life and professional life behind this permanent connectivity,” Orange Director General Bruno Mettling told Europe1 radio in February. “Professionals who find the right balance between private and work life perform far better in their job than those who arrive shattered.”

The legislation passed the French lower parliamentary house in May. It was not the first time such a bill had been proposed. Similar legislation banning work-related emails after work hours had been introduced in France and Germany before but never made it to law.

The move received criticism from some who worried that French workers would get left behind by competitors in other countries where such restrictions did not exist. Still others objected to government interference.

“In France, we are champions at passing laws, but they are not always very helpful when what we need is greater flexibility in the workplace,” Olivier Mathiot, chief executive of PriceMinister, a Paris-based online marketplace, told BBC News in May.

Mathiot told the news site its company had implemented “no-email Fridays” and felt the problem should have been handled through education, not legislation.

However, supporters of the bill said it would be an important move toward minimising work-related stress among French employees.

“At home the workspace can be the kitchen or the bathroom or the bedroom,” Linh Le, a partner at Elia management consultants in Paris, told BBC News. “You’re at home but you’re not at home, and that poses a real threat to relationships.”

French companies are expected to comply with the law on a voluntary basis, and there are no penalties yet for violating it, BBC reported.