Money Work France enhances work-life balance. Should we?
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France enhances work-life balance. Should we?

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In 1999, France introduced the four day working week. Each year, French workers get five weeks off, with additional time if they do more than 35 hours work a week, and bonus days off are given to people who take their time off outside of summer. Childcare is 16 per cent cheaper than Australia and the maternal employment rate is 10 per cent higher.

And now, a new labour agreement in France has won employees respite from intrusive emails, texts and phone calls after hours.

After months of negotiations, millions of employees in the nation’s consulting and tech industry will now have a ‘duty to disconnect’ from their communication tools after work, according to reports in French media. Employers will also be banned from pressuring their employees to respond digitally under the new agreement.

The Guardian reports that the deal will affect a million employees in the technology and consultancy sectors, including French employees at Google and Facebook.

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France was the first country to ever legislate a 35-hour working week in 1999. Working beyond the hours of 9pm and 6am is outlawed in the country unless the work is of social or economic importance.

Syntec, one of the employers who negotiated the agreement, has hailed it as “une avancée sociale majeure” or a major social advancement on its website.

The French seem to be fighting back against the bombardment of work-related intrusions through smartphones, tablets and other digital devices.

Getting the balance right

The Australian Medical Association reported in December that on average Australians spend one day every week (23 hours and 18 minutes) on technology. 

The problem, of course, is when those hours are spent after knock-off time.

A recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts and Clemson University found that intensive mobile device use for work can be harmful to physical and mental health.

“With the proliferation and ubiquity of information and communication technologies, it is becoming imperative for individuals to constantly engage with these technologies in order to get work accomplished,” wrote the authors of the study.

A 2006 Canadian study found that mobile devices increase expectations on employees.

“Managers and colleagues alike expect staff to be almost always available to do work, which makes it easier for work to encroach on family time, and also leads to a greater workload. The ability to perform work extension is, then, a dual-edged sword,” said the study’s authors. 

Meanwhile, a 2011 study at Birmingham City University confirmed that the ease with which work can be brought into the home via digital technology encroaches on family life.

Tech detox

Fiona Craig, a life balance coach, found she was constantly being pestered by emails and texts at all hours on her iPhone, at the expense of her wellbeing.

Tired of being “the slave” of her smartphone, and having her personal and family time eroded by work, Ms Craig has put her own advice into practice and embarked on a self-imposed “smartphone detox.”

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“I started in the New Year when my son went to his dad’s, and I turned off all the notifications on my iPhone,” she said.

“What I’ve learned is how much it took me away from pleasurable things, and how much it got me into states of worry and anxiety.”

She disabled “all the pings, dings, blings and zings” on her phone. Rather than reacting to her phone whenever it made a noise, Ms Craig now only checks her notifications at two set times a day, and is much happier for it.

“Having done that small thing, I am now much more back to balance. I feel a lot calmer, and I’m in control,” Ms Craig said.

“I think it creates anxiety, and it doesn’t give you any personal downtime. My health was actually suffering from it. I was becoming quite nervy.”

Time off should be time off

Ms Craig thinks that bosses use digital technologies to impose on their employees.

“I know of one lady whose boss at 3am in the morning was breastfeeding and texting her. And because she didn’t have her phone turned off, she woke up,” she said. “In some professions, it’s just the culture – like in advertising, where you work until you get the work done,” Ms Craig said. “There’s just no off-switch.”

The pressure to respond to these after-hours email and calls is strong, Ms Craig said.

“I can appreciate from an employee’s perspective that naturally you want to keep your job. It’s hard,” she said. “I think it’s based on fear. People want to secure their jobs. They just feel this need all the time to be informed as well.”

Ms Craig agreed with the French ban on digital communication after hours, and thinks Australia would benefit from something similar.

“I think that would actually be really beneficial,” Ms Craig said. “Employees have a right to another life. It’s not in their job description.”

For Kunal Luthra, an honours student in his second last year of medical training at Monash University, there are positives and negatives to always being tied-in to digital technology.

“They actually assist with our studies, so at any moment in time we have access to a great wealth of knowledge, which is very important for a medical student,” Mr Luthra said. “But there are negatives, and often that is you can’t disconnect from your workload.”

“There are times that we need to switch off from anything related to our medical studies, and the potential for technology in the digital world to infringe upon that is there.”

Should Australia take steps to firewall family time from work? Or is some crossover a fact of life in 2014? Leave your comments below.