Last week, a dazzling meme captured the viral hive-mind of an overstressed generation: French workers had adopted a new labor policy to ban work-related e-mail after 6 pm.
The rule would supposedly force managers of workers in tech and consulting jobs to stop sending e-mails and other business communications outside of designated work schedules. It was described as a mandate for workers to “resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones—or any other kind of malevolent intrusion into the time they have been nationally mandated to spend on whatever the French call la dolce vita.” Awkwardly Italian slang-reference notwithstanding, the Brits aired classic bon mots about France’s notorious leisure culture had led them to “[ban] bosses from bothering them once the working day is done.”
In a half-jeering, half-envious tone, commentators trumpeted France’s hardline defense of living well and “life after 6 p.m.” You could almost hear the champagne glasses clinking at the strike of six as Vuitton-clad employees powered down their mobiles in lockstep and promptly flipped off the supervisor.
In reality, France’s off-clock life remains essentially unchanged. The image of legions of French office grunts downing smartphones en masse was, alas, slightly hyperbolic. As Buzzfeed and others pointed out, this was not a law, but something known as a “labor agreement.” On behalf of a group of organized professional employees, the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) and CGC (Confédération générale des cadres) unions engaged employer’s associations via collective bargaining and agreed to an “obligation to disconnect from remote communications tools” outside of normal working hours, which professionals measure by days worked annually (no set hours, much less a post-6 pm ban). The measure, aimed at preserving workers’ health and wellness, now awaits approval by the Labor Ministry.
The agreement covers mid-managerial professionals whose schedules tend to be more erratic—or what corporate America terms “flexible.” The 250,000 affected employees represent some of the most stressed-out “knowledge economy” workers, and the labor arrangement simply aims to limit stress by placing some restrictions to how much work intrudes on the personal lives of workers. Besides, France’s famous thirty-five-hour workweek does not apply to these workers, and they are generally allowed up to seventy-eight work-hours in a given week—hardly a life of leisure. And the policy is not unprecedented. The German Labor Ministry and Volkswagen’s administration have recently enacted similar curbs on after-work contact between staff and higher-ups.