Thousands of people took to the streets of France on Thursday to protest the government's latest efforts to push through a much-contested labor bill that, in an attempt to bolster economic growth, may make it easier to hire and fire workers. But the bill also happens to contain a measure that, on its own, would likely be very popular: Among a host of other reforms, it encourages people to ignore work emails after office hours.
Critics of the bill say it will weaken unions and make it easier for bosses to fire or overwork employees. And while the bill does maintain France's legal 35-hour working week, it also allows companies to request longer working days under special circumstances.
Thousands of people have been taking to the streets over the past few months, as successive, watered-down versions of the bill failed to appease French workers, job seekers, and students. Banners saying that "The night is for fucking, not for working" started appearing at protests this spring — and, ironically, the bill may help achieve just that. If the text makes it past the Senate and the National Assembly later this year, French people's nights could soon be again dedicated to a more pleasurable activity than answering emails from your boss.
A placard suggesting that "The night is for fucking, not for working" at a demonstration in Paris
Measures in the law seek to combat sexism in the workplace, introduce a monthly allowance for young people looking for job, and the enshrining of "the right to disconnect" — a clause protecting workers from the spillover of work into their private lives.
The idea that there should be a clear demarcation between work and home life became a policy, if not an actual law, in 2014, when employers' federations Cinov and Syntec reached an agreement with the CFDT and CGC trade unions on "the obligation to disconnect from remote communication tools." The purpose of the agreement was to ensure employees in certain sectors would stop responding to work emails and calls outside of designated work hours.
Frédéric Lafage, a vice-president at Cinov, said that the 2014 agreement was designed specifically to protect employees who are contracted for a specific number of days, but who are free to organize their work schedule as they see fit.
"These are employees […] who have full autonomy in the way they manage their projects or tasks," he said. "It's up to the companies to make sure they take time off, because the risk with employees who work autonomously is that they never stop working."
Lafage noted that some businesses had gone as far as to limit access to the company server as a way to enforce employee "disconnection." But not all companies can take such drastic measures to make sure their employees get some rest — particularly those with an international reach. "It's also up to the employee not to work more than the hours stipulated [in the agreement]," said Lafage.
The controversial labor bill also puts the onus on managers, who will have to "put in place mechanisms to regulate the use of digital tools, with a view to ensuring that down time and days off, as well as personal and family life, are respected."
If employees and their managers cannot reach an agreement on the issue, however, bosses get the final word. For companies with more than 50 employees, employers will have to draw up a charter outlining the company's "disconnection" policy, in consultation with worker representatives.
But for some lawmakers with the ruling Socialist party, the bill doesn't go far enough. They say bosses should be penalized for failing to shield their employees from work encroachment.
Yves Lasfargue, director of the Observatoire des Conditions de Travail et de l'Ergostressie — a research center that studies the impact of work and work-related stress on those working mainly from home — describes the constant overload of information being processed by employees and managers in the digital age as "infobesity."
According to an article published in French daily Les Échos in April, 10.5 percent of the French workforce is at serious risk of job-related burnout. And while a burnout is not officially considered a work-related illness, that could all change soon. In February 2016, French Health Minister Marisol Touraine formed a working group to study the medical implications of work-related exhaustion.
For occupational psychologist Sébastien Hof, laying down the right to disconnect is a step in the right direction. "Being hyperconnected makes you feel like you're constantly in a rush and stressed out," he said. He mentioned the case of an executive he was treating for a few months, who was struggling to keep up with an unmanageable workload. "He's besieged by emails," said Hof. "He doesn't have time to work on projects."
Bringing your work home can cause undue stress and have a significant negative impact on your home life and relationships, Hof said. "Work invades you constantly and you no longer have time to think about your holidays or junior's birthday," he said. "You can no longer think about daily life away from work."
Some companies in France have already put in place measures to limit hyperconnectivity during the working day.
Alexia Lefeuvre, communication manager at French online marketplace PriceMinister, said that her employer introduced an optional monthly morning of no emails back in February 2015. Once a month, employees of the company — customer service excepted — do not have to answer any emails for one whole morning. "The aim is to make people aware of how many emails we send, that we don't need to copy everyone into an email, and that sometimes, it's better just to walk over to the person," she said, likening the practice to a team-building exercise.
While the initiative may seem like a token, Lefeuvre said it has made a real difference. "We noticed that we had fewer internal emails, and that there were fewer CC'd emails going around the company," she said. "We're thinking of extending the idea to a day of no email."
If the labor bill is adopted, the French government could soon be conducting its own experiment in reduced connectivity. The bill authorizes the government to carry out a twelve-month study on the "reasonable use of email" by civil servants, with a view to drawing up guidelines for businesses and government agencies.
According to Hof, the digital age has given workers the false sense that business can be expedited thanks to devices like smartphones. "But in fact you're caught up in this machine, because one email yields another, and ultimately you feel frustrated because you didn't get done what you had planned to get done."
The BBC has described article 25 of the bill — which outlines the "right to disconnect" — as the only measure of the bill that is attracting consensus. But in a country famous for valuing the sanctity of downtime, no one can seem to agree on how best to legislate on the right not to reply to your boss after 5pm.
Some opposition lawmakers recently submitted an amendment to raise the minimum number of employees from 50 to 300, before a company is required to draw up a "disconnection" charter.
Meanwhile, another group of opposition deputies seeks to scrap the measure completely, deeming it too vague. "Furthermore, the measure is at odds with the practice whereby the devices of connected professionals are naturally turned off outside of the timeframe specified by the contract," they argued. In short, employees shouldn't be answering work calls and emails outside of work in the first place.