In Business

Calling an end to the work day - maybe the French are onto something, after all

Law forbidding some French bosses from contacting employees after hours throws light on work-life balance and how to measure productivity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 11:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 4:41am

Honestly, those French people: they sit around all day puffing Gauloises cigarettes, quaffing vin rouge, and now we learn that a new law protects them from having to answer work e-mails or phone calls from their bosses after 6pm!

This comforting caricature of the indolent French will be reassuring to those who like clichés (yes, I know this is a French word, but us English speakers rarely resort to the use of stereotypes, except from Monday to Sunday). And, of course, we Brits have a long history of disdaining our neighbours across a sea correctly called the English Channel.

One of the reasons for British antipathy towards the French stems from the suspicion that French people lead far more enjoyable lives.

The fact is that the two nations have a long history of thinking the worst of each other, and news of yet another French law to mollycoddle the notoriously "work shy" French was something like manna from heaven for much of the British media.

The fresh ammunition generated by this news refuelled deepest suspicions, and some British media outlets could hardly contain themselves, nor were they going to be bothered by facts that got in the way of the story.

While it is often hard to measure productivity, it is quite easy to measure working hours

So they rushed to state that the law covered the entire workforce, although this new piece of legislation is confined to some workers in the digital and communications industries, totalling about one million people.

The new law also gave rise to a rather more sensible discussion over work-life balance and about whether working longer hours really means enhancing productivity.

In Hong Kong, not only do people work far longer hours than in practically any other industrialised society, but there is also a widespread practice of boasting about working long hours. Staying in the office until the boss leaves is commonplace and has nothing to do with getting work done and everything to do with the perceptions that bosses and workers have about their employment.

A Hong Kong government study covering last year found that local employees worked an average 51.7 hours per week. This is way above the International Labour Organisation's recommended cap of 40 hours per week and one-third above the French working week of 35 hours.

So, the obvious question is whether working these very long hours makes Hong Kong a more productive centre than France, or other places for that matter.

Employee productivity is a contentious issue, and I am sceptical about international productivity comparisons, so readers can be spared a recitation of these studies. Instead, let us rely on anecdotal observation and the knowledge everyone reading this has of his or her own working experience.

We all know that it is simply impossible for an employee to be at a productive peak over many hours of work. The Swedish city of Gothenburg is contemplating the introduction of a 30-hour week because officials believe employees are only really productive over shorter time spans and that longer hours do not necessarily get the job done.

My main experience of employment is confined to journalism and the food industry, where working hours are long and characterised by periods of intense activity to meet deadlines, accompanied by many hours of dead time when little is achieved.

As an employer, I am well aware that many of these hours are occupied by people determined to "look busy", but I am equally aware that this is a sham. The adrenaline generated by meeting a deadline leaves little time for clock watching, but generating the required level of adrenaline takes its toll over time and can lead to burn out.

Most jobs are not quite so time-sensitive and require a great deal of repetitive work that leads to boredom, mistakes and a general level of weariness that detracts from productivity.

The case for more intensive work over shorter periods seems to be obvious. However, companies shy away from the obvious, because while it is often hard to measure productivity, it is quite easy to measure working hours.

The concept of work-life balance has only come to the fore recently and tends to be framed in terms of how it makes employees into happier and more fulfilled people, but it also has important implications for the output of those at work.

The French working hours initiative, focusing on two industries where after-hours work is prevalent, might well be on to something because, at a very minimum, it addresses the question of efficiency.

In other words, how efficient is it to badger staff with e-mails and phone calls after the working day has ended? And does it not concentrate the mind on how to get the job done to know that there is not an endless timeframe within which to fulfil the work?

StephenVines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster