Should Canada follow France’s lead in clamping down on off-hours email?

When France implemented its 35-hour workweek more than 15 years ago, it seemed to signal a real victory for work-life balance in a world where the lines between work and personal matters had grown increasingly blurry.

But is the country’s latest labour reform bill, which includes an amendment governing work email after hours, another step in the right direction or does it merely create more confusion? And is the amendment, known as the right to disconnect, a feasible option for Canada?
In May, France’s National Assembly passed a labour reform bill that includes an amendment suggesting organizations with 50 or more employees draft formal policies to limit the spillover of work to off hours, specifically as it relates to digital technology.

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“The development of information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers,” the amendment stated.

“Among them, the burden of work and the informational overburden, the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life, are risks associated with the usage of digital technology.”

Despite the concerns, it’s important to first note that the proliferation of new technologies has actually played a significant role in creating work-life balance, says Arla Day, a professor of organizational psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“We have work-at-home options, we have flexible hours. . . . We have had much more flexibility than we’ve had in the past because of technology.”

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Julie McCarthy, an associate professor in organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto, agrees but she notes that while technology is great in many ways, it does have its drawbacks. “The use of smartphones means that many of us are never off the grid. We are attached to the workplace 24/7,” she says.

“As a result, people are not only working more but they are working at times that used to be devoted to personal time. This is detrimental to our well-being, as there is little to no time for rejuvenation.”

Technology ‘not the villain’

While France clearly has good intentions, the labour law amendment is the wrong solution targeting the wrong problem, says Day. “If we want to reduce stress and increase balance, we can’t be targeting the [information technology]. It’s not the villain in the story. The real issue is the culture of an organization that doesn’t respect and support the work, that creates this culture of overwork and really doesn’t promote work-life balance.”

Corey Vermey, director of health care at Unifor, agrees the central issue is a cultural shift. “Some of that has been happening in the broader discussion around mental health and work-life balance and dealing with a workforce that is ever increasingly asked for more in terms of time commitment.

“I think it would distinguish by way of the culture of an organization if it had a clear policy as to what is the appropriate degree of obligation. In days gone by, it was a fair wage for a fair day’s work and now it includes not just a fair day but a fair night’s work as well.”

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One of the biggest stressors in today’s workforce is a lack of control over the work environment, according to many studies. “Now, France has taken one mechanism by which people feel they can control their workload, and that is going to create more stress for them,” says Day. “If [employees] can’t change the workload issue, either they’re going to create more stress or they’re going to find ways to go around it.”

For many organizations, the issue also involves a lack of resiliency and capacity, according to Vermey. “If there isn’t a way of rerouting someone’s email during a vacation to a peer who could pick up that slack, people never really do get relief from their workload. It just accumulates until they return to the workplace or they deal with it outside of the workplace during their leisure time.”
The employer’s role

Regardless of whether Canada adopts something similar to France’s right to disconnect, any employer that’s attentive to the importance of restricting work demands will have policies in place to address the issue, says Cam Mustard, president and senior scientist at the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto.

“Human resources policies [should] acknowledge the way in which email and texting can penetrate into people’s personal lives when they’re not at work. The organizations that don’t have policies about communicating off hours are not moving with the technology.”

The way companies communicate their policies to employees is important as well, says McCarthy. “Communicating these expectations is critical. Let employees know that disconnecting during off-work hours is supported. Also, many executives I know set up their email system so that it holds off-work emails as drafts and then sends them in a big batch the next weekday morning. This way, they aren’t emailing employees in the evenings.”

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Ultimately, it comes down to organizations creating a culture of balance and managers being aware of how employees want to work. “When I’m hiring people, I always talk about what they’re like individually, how much flexibility they like, and I’m able to tailor the working conditions to them, because I recognize it doesn’t work for everybody,” says Day.

“Some people want more flexibility. They want to check emails on weekends or leave early on Wednesday. . . . I don’t feel that I can sit back and say, ‘No, you’re wrong.’ As long as they are disconnecting at some point, as long as they are taking care of themselves, then I try to treat them like adults who are responsible.”

Day cites Virgin Group Ltd. as “a great example” of a way to approach the issue. “It places great importance on its technology and it also has unlimited leave. It’s not that you need to have one or the other.”

Jennifer Paterson is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.

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