You’ve Got (No) Mail

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It’s easy to underestimate the French.

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian reported that France had passed a law making it illegal for bosses to email their employees after normal work hours. The story quickly spread. Some commentators condemned the law. If fit in with the common perception of the French as idle, on vacation more than they work, and when they do work, taking long lunches to sip wine in outdoor cafes and figuring out ways to snub American tourists. True, workers have a mandated 35 hour maximum work week and 10 hour work day, so on average less put in fewer hours than their American, Japanese or even other European counterparts. However, this makes them anything but idle. If they were as lazy as we believed, companies like L’Oreal, Michelin and Renault wouldn’t be thriving. While there surely are some who milk the system, these people exist in every developed nation.

Still, it was easy to believe the French would pass such a law. The only problem was that the article was wrong. As reported in Slate and elsewhere, there was no such law passed in France. Rather, there was an agreement between two groups of employers and unions that employees classified as independent workers had an “obligation to disconnect”. These workers are not held to the work hour restrictions of other workers and often put in long hours. The agreement basically said that they could have a total of eleven hours every day when they wouldn’t have to be accessible, leaving a potential for 13 hours of work per day. Hardly idle.

Regardless of whether or not the law exists, it hit at the heart of those of us who must traverse the communications minefield that is the modern workplace. Who hasn’t gotten a phone call from a client in the middle of family dinner, or an email from their boss asking that something be completed first thing Monday morning while watching football on Sunday afternoon? Who hasn’t wished that, for a short time at least, they couldn’t completely unplug and forget about work for a while? Some organizations have made this increasingly difficult. They have provided cell phones and tablets and VPNs so that an employee has no excuse for not being available. Then, because managers of these organizations apparently have no life outside of work, they think you are the same way. They send out emails at 1:30 in the morning and expect you to have read them before coming into the office at six. When viewed from this perspective, a law banning after hours emails sounds ultimately appealing.

But we can’t just blame employers. We as employees are also to blame. In our desire for more flexible work schedules, we have had to sacrifice a clear line between our work and personal lives. If I want to leave early in the afternoon to attend my daughter’s dance recital, that means that I may be following up on emails after I’ve tucked her in that night. It’s the price to be paid for not missing those moments in life you can never get back.

Then there are our own insecurities. I work for a company that fires fewer than three percent of its workforce in any given year, and many of those are newer employees who just couldn’t perform up to standard. Yet I’ve talked to numerous employees who are afraid that they will get fired at any moment, ignoring by statements to the contrary. These employees exist in all companies, and think they have to be 100 percent responsive to their bosses at all times or their head is on the chopping block. But if they thought about it, would their boss really fire them for not answering a text in the middle of coaching their kid’s little league game? If there’s a circumstance where this has happened, I can’t find it.

These insecurities also manifest themselves in us trying to look more important than they are. Look at me, I’m taking this work call during the neighborhood block party, I’m answering work emails while at dinner with my family. See how important I am? Of course, there are people whose jobs are time sensitive, who are always on call, who are that vital – trauma surgeons, police chiefs, etc. – but for most of use, were fooling ourselves to think there isn’t much that can arise on a weekend that can’t wait until Monday morning. In the words of Bertrand Russell, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”

I can access my email, phone and other work communications any time, from a number of devices. There’s a great convenience to this. By going through my to do list as I have my toast and coffee, it helps me prepare for the day so I can come into the office and hit the ground running. And If I’m off for a few days, I’d rather clean out my emails now and again then spending half a day going through the more than 1000 of them on my first day back.

One July, I was vacationing with my family in Michigan. We were browsing the ailes of the world’s largest Christmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan, when my phone rang. An employee had acted in such a way that there seemed no choice but to let him go as soon as possible. So there I was, listening to the story of this employee, standing among brightly lit articficial Christmas trees while the thermometer outside read 85 degrees. But if I hadn’t been available, the alternatives were to make the decision without HR’s counsel, or wait the week or so until my return, which by then would have been too late. I preferred to get the call.

To not respond to all but the most demanding bosses, you need to set your own limits on when it’s acceptable to take after hours emails, to answer calls when you are at home. There is no law, not even in France, that will make this happen. And most bosses aren’t going to do it for you. Most of us no longer have a whistle that blows when our shift is over.


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