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French ban on after-hours e-mail is first step in right direction

Claire Fox is the author of Work-Life Symbiosis: The Model for Happiness and Balance

The French government has taken a bold step to limit time spent looking at work e-mails by giving employees the "right to disconnect." Organizations with more than 50 employees will be obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours – normally evenings and weekends – when staff are not supposed to send or answer e-mails. This is an attempt to combat the negative effect that modern technology and connectivity is having on people's ability to switch off from work.

The data says it all – U.S. workers spend 6.3 hours a day checking e-mails, according to one online survey, and Canadians are online an average of 36.3 hours per month, a comScore Canada poll found. People are suffering with work-related stress at unprecedented levels. Organizations are suffering from costs related to absenteeism, lower productivity, and the effect on decision making that comes with having large proportions of the work force operating at higher stress levels than are healthy or sustainable. So is legislating down time the right way to tackle this epidemic?

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France should be applauded for taking bold action – it's more than other governments are doing. But it feels like a bandage. It does not address the root causes: Everyone is being asked to do more, faster, better, and with fewer resources. Employees do not feel empowered to have a fair say about how their workload and working patterns affect the rest of their lives. And let's be clear, regardless of what governments may or may not say, organizations have a moral and legal obligation to protect their employees.

My philosophy is "work-life symbiosis" – having a positive connection between home and work, each energizing the other. It needs personal leadership because my mix of "work" and "life" activities will not be the same as yours. The volume of work and work-related pressure – which up to a certain point can help productivity – an individual thrives on rather than gets stressed by will vary significantly. Catching up on your e-mails on a Tuesday evening because you spent an hour watching your child's school play that afternoon may suit you.

We can't ignore the roles of those whose work involves communicating with customers, clients or employees in different times zones – to do so does not make business sense. Equally, grinding employees down with relentless and unmanageable volumes of work, which spill into evening and weekend time regularly, doesn't make business sense either. Organizations need to grasp the obvious truth that having vibrant, motivated employees who are energized by work will give those employers a competitive advantage, or at least take seriously their responsibility to not negatively affect the mental and physical health of their employees.

Employees have power, too. Every now and then we all need to evaluate our lives. What is really important to us? And is our life, and the choices we make, aligned with this? If you are unhappy with your job, or the pressure that comes with that, make a change. I realize it's easier said than done. But if the majority – and particularly those considered "top performers" – put their foot down and said they won't check their e-mails at the weekend, and that a reasonable number of objectives is five not 10, it would drive change very quickly. Organizations would have no choice but to accommodate their employees to avoid a mass exodus of unhappy, talented people.

The primary responsibility sits with organizations. But there is a role governments should play to ensure organizations take this responsibility seriously. This means rules that require employers to teach employees how to manage their time and prioritize, ensuring there is a legal mechanism to genuinely raise and address concerns related to stress, and requiring employee-assistance programs to support people during challenging periods. Whether you agree with the stance being taken in France or not, their decision is clear recognition of the problem and a robust commitment to try and tackle it. I'd like to see more action to tackle this issue from all angles – governments, organizations and individuals alike.

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