Australian experts have called for greater protections against overwork in the digital age, after employees in France were granted the right to ignore emails from bosses and colleagues outside normal hours.
The landmark new law, introduced by Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party government, came into effect on January 1.
French companies with more than 50 employees will be required to negotiate with staff to define their rights to switch off outside work hours.
If no agreement is reached, the companies must create a charter that sets out the hours when workers should not send or receive emails.
“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” Socialist Party MP Benoit Hamon told the BBC last year.
“The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
Described as a new human right for the digital era by experts, it follows moves by individual companies to limit the amount of work employees do outside normal hours.
In 2012, Volkswagen made it company policy to block its servers from sending emails to workers 30 minutes before and after their working day.
Another German company, car and truck maker Daimler, has introduced a program that automatically deletes emails sent to workers during their holidays.
Australians working after hours
Professor Barbara Pocock, from the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work and Life, said Australian workers were also working outside normal hours as a result of technology.
“It’s a big issue, it’s transforming the work experience of a sizeable number of Australian workers,” she told The New Daily.
Professor Pocock, who has researched the “infiltration of work email into personal and family life”, said that workplace regulations in countries like Australia needed to be “pulled into the 21st century”.
While workers believed technology had given them a sense of control, it often came at a cost, she said.
“The dark side is really significant.
“We know what long hours of work do for mental and physical health.
“Many workers, particularly men, are donating unpaid time.”
Professor Pocock said the French laws “showed the need to catch up with the changing nature of employment”, but urged Australian regulators to focus on defining and controlling “long and unreasonable work hours”.
Her study, co-authored with Natalie Skinner in 2013, found that almost half of Australian workers checked their emails outside work, particularly managers and professionals.
In 2016, an OECD study found that work-life balance in Australia ranked below the average across developed countries.
The study said Australian full-time employees on average reported having 30 minutes less time to spend on “leisure and personal care”, compared to other OECD countries.
‘The right to disconnect’
Queensland University of Technology work and organisation expert Paula McDonald said most Australians were not required to work outside their work hours but felt obliged to for a range of reasons.
“Most people already have the right to disconnect,” Professor McDonald told The New Daily.
“The interesting thing is, why don’t they?”
The Professor said workers faced a “range of subtle workplace pressures” from employees and colleagues, which had been exacerbated by technology.
“People who feel that their jobs may be threatened with imminent downsizing … will feel obliged to respond outside of hours.
“Regulation would be a step in the right direction, but a shift in workplace norms would be just as important.”