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France – No professional emails allowed past 6pm?

11 April 2014

Would the best response to staff burnout be to oblige staff to shut down all smartphones and other devices past 6 o’clock? The UK press responded very enthusiastically to the idea yesterday, following reports that a collective labour agreement in France introduced the possibility for certain categories of workers.

It all started with a blog post from Guardian journalist Lucy Mangan: “Just in case you weren't jealous enough of the French already, what with their effortless style, lovely accents and collective will to calorie control, they have now just made it illegal to work after 6pm”, indicating that “employers' federations and unions have signed a new, legally binding labour agreement that will require staff to switch off their phones after 6pm.”

Later the same day the Times ran an article titled “No after-work e-mails please. French ordered to ignore the boss after 6pm”, which then prompted the BBC to publish the following remark in an online news article: “France has brought in rules to protect employees from work email disturbing them outside office hours. Would a law to this effect be feasible elsewhere?”

While it is true that French social partners recently signed a collective agreement addressing, amongst over aspects relating to working conditions of a specific category of workers, the right not to respond to phone calls and emails; the agreement merely introduces the possibility in order to comply with national and European legislation on working hours and minimum rest time. 

First of all, as a collective agreement it only affects a relatively restricted portion of the workforce, a particular category of staff that falls under specific criteria: managers and consultants in the technology area, with a high degree of autonomy to conduct their work; and which working hours are counted in days on an annual basis (to account for fluctuating work load between assignments and benched times), rather than the most common 35 hours per week criteria. 

Secondly, the signatories advise that “switching off all devices during rest time is a pre-requisite” to ensure these workers effectively benefit from a necessary rest time of at least 11 hours per day. The agreement also indicates that employers would be responsible for introducing procedures to control whether the minimum rest time requirements are respected.

Finally, bets remain open on whether the French Ministry of Labour will extend the provisions to other categories of staff, nevertheless this first step indicates a willingness from the social partners to address the moving contours of work/life balance in the 21st century.

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