It’s “another reason to admire France” — evidence that America’s oldest ally, one of the “Countries That Actually Want Their Citizens to Have Better Lives,” has “made itself even cooler.”
That’s how some media outlets in the United States are covering France’s new “right to disconnect.” But is it really a good idea?
As the Huffington Post explained, this is a proposed law “suggesting that companies of 50 or more employees draft formal policies to limit the spillover of work, specifically as it’s related to ‘digital technology,’ into the private lives of employees. This, according to the BBC, would involve establishing a policy that specifies hours when employees aren’t supposed to send or receive email.” The goal is to alleviate work-related stress, which studies show increasing as technology keeps workers connected to their jobs.
To be clear, there’s no penalty for violating this law, and compliance for businesses is voluntary. But is it even a good idea? Should the takeaway really be, “Your move, America,” as Michelle Ruiz wrote in Vogue?
There’s no question work-life balance is a legitimate concern for famously workaholic Americans. This is a country where employees allotted time off often fear taking all of it. It’s why the U.S. Travel Association has devoted an entire initiative, Project: Time Off, to aggressive vacation persuasion, which in and of itself speaks to our relationship with work.
“Americans are definitely worse at taking their time off,” the project’s spokeswoman Cait DeBaun told InsideSources. She’s quick to say there’s nothing “un-American” about maxing out on vacation time, but describes the U.S. as a “work-hard culture.” Often, “work martyr” employees self-impose restrictions on their own time away from work, rationalizing that they can’t afford it professionally.
DeBaun agrees technology is a big enabler of this martyrdom, but she’s not endorsing any France-style government policies for the United States. “We’re focused on changing company culture and individual behavior,” she said.
The French are often mocked, particularly in America, for mandating five weeks of vacation time a year for every worker. That, along with the country’s 35-hour work week and powerful unions, earns it special teasing from U.S. conservatives like Stan Veuger, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“I like that it’s France enacting this legislation, because it’s so stereotypical,” he said in an interview. “It’s really impractical. A lot of people just choose less leisure time in exchange for higher pay or more prestigious jobs.”
It’s easy to imagine rigid email prohibition creating logistical problems, too. What if a boss needs to reschedule a Monday morning meeting? What if using some weekend downtime to plan ahead for the week is actually a convenience for workers? This kind of one-size-fits-all directive isn’t exactly built for flexibility.
Now, thanks to the voluntary nature of the French system, Veuger didn’t sound that worried. “You should see it more as norm-setting,” he said, suggesting that the head of security at one of France’s nuclear plants, for example, would probably still be reachable via smartphone on a Saturday.
That’s assuming he’s not on vacation, of course.
This story has been updated.