Why America Needs the French Email Law

With the new year, a new French law asserting workers’ “right to disconnect” went into effect, aimed at discouraging burnout and ensuring fair pay. The law requires companies with 50 employees or more to set hours that employees cannot send or answer emails.

I love the French email law. Not because I think it would work here or should be enacted here (far from it!), but because the overwhelming news coverage it received helps to create an environment of pressure that is badly needed in America. Each news article (or blog, tweet, share, conversation between friends, etc.) about the critical nature of work-life balance contributes to a building environment of pressure. It is this pressure that creates the conditions for change in our work culture and that forces companies to rethink employee value—or be left behind, because times have changed.

The Great Recession and its slow recovery scared the American workforce, and even as unemployment drops below 5% for the first time since 2008, anxiety persists. For many Americans, their confidence in their value was shaken, and they chose to assert themselves by working harder.

As the job market gets stronger and talent becomes more prized, we need to realize that harder does not always mean smarter. In the workplace, America prizes face time—and now technology has given us the tools to allow face time even if you’re not physically present. Here’s the rub: the labor market is not what it was just a handful of years ago, and competition for talent requires a holistic view at what it means to be a great employee. Being the first to arrive and the last to leave doesn’t mean you accomplish any more than someone who works fewer hours. Responding to an after-hours email before anyone else doesn’t make a response more valuable or better than the person who waited until the morning. And skipping vacation time doesn’t make you more valuable than your coworker who took all her time and came back with fresh perspective and ideas.

Specific to vacation, we still see employees with anxiety about taking time off. Fears that they will be replaced or that they won’t seem as dedicated are keeping them tied to the office. But they are undermining their value as employees. Having studied Americans’ vacation behavior for three years, I’ve come to one simple conclusion: companies should care about their employees taking time off just as much as the individual employees do.

There are a few enlightened companies that get it, but the clear majority don’t appreciate power of downtime—yet. And though two-thirds of employees hear nothing about vacation from their company, I know that 89% of managers feel that time off can keep employees from burning out, that 85% feel it makes their employees more creative and focused, and that 84% believe employees come back from vacation more productive.

So I love the French email law, and anything that contributes to the environment of pressure. And if you care about getting the best version of the employee you hired, you should too.


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