New French Law Seeks Work-Life Balance: Would US Ever Follow Suit?

Scales, work and life

While advances in technology have improved the workplace by increasing productivity, these advances have also become a double-edged sword.

Employees no longer need to be physically in their work location in order to send an email, attend a telephone conference or complete an assignment. All of these activities can be conducted remotely from smartphones, tablets or laptops.

Since employees can easily communicate from all of these devices at any time or place, they are potentially working late in the evening or on weekends when they may be technically “off the clock,” working way beyond the typical or required hours for the work week.

In the US this can expose to employers to various claims, including wage and hour violations and distracted driving lawsuits, not to mention overworked employees who are burned out, stressed and sleep-deprived.

French Employees Gain Right to Disconnect

Recognizing this conundrum for employees, France enacted a law that became effective January 1, that in principle gives employees the “right to disconnect” from work-related technology outside working hours.

This right is not exactly defined in the law, but implies that employees are entitled to cease contact with work through computer-based technology outside of working hours, for example, by not reading or responding to work-related emails. This right is implemented through the negotiation and consultation at the level of individual employers.

Under the French law, companies with 50 or more employees where at least one representative trade union has a union section and a union delegate must annually conduct collective bargaining on the quality of life and the ways in which employees can exercise their right to disconnect.

If the companies cannot reach an agreement, the employer must draw up a “charter,” setting out the ways in which employees can exercise their right to disconnect, and provide for training and awareness-raising measures for employees and managers on the “reasonable” use of computer-based technology.

There are some negatives when it comes to this law. Employees who work for companies with less than 50 employees are not entitled to the same protections. Also, employers are not penalized if they don’t comply. Nevertheless, this law may help those covered employees whose work and personal lives have become blurred.

It’s not surprising that France is at the forefront on protecting work-life balance. As compared to the US, workers in France enjoy far greater protections when it comes to employee rights, including the following:

  1. All employees are entitled to paid leave. The statutory entitlement is to 2.5 working days of holiday per month of service with the employer, which equals 30 days a year. Part-time workers have the same rights as full-time workers, adjusted for their shorter working day or week.
  2. Annual paid leave should in principle be taken in two bunches: a main holiday of four weeks (24 working days) and an additional holiday of one week (six working days). The main holiday may be broken up into shorter periods of leave, by agreement between employer and employee, but there must always be one continuous period of at least 12 working days.
  3.  Pregnant employees are entitled to 16 weeks of maternity leave, six weeks before the birth of the child and 10 weeks afterwards. If the birth is earlier than expected, the unused antenatal leave is added to the postnatal leave.
  4.  Employees with at least one year’s service with their employer are entitled to take parental leave, following the end of the mother’s maternity leave, up until the child’s third birthday. Alternatively, they may opt to work part time (working a minimum of 16 hours a week) for the same period.

Meanwhile on This Side of the Atlantic…

US employees struggle to contain their jealousy of the protections in France and other European countries when on this side of the pond, there is no US federal mandatory vacation entitlement or federal law entitling employees to paid sick leave (although several municipalities and a few states have enacted sick leave laws). In addition, there is no federal paid parental leave law in the US and only a handful of laws exist on the state or local level. As a result, some private companies have taken it upon themselves to implement such initiatives.

And even though job applicants, particularly millennials, may be seeking companies that encourage a work-life balance and may value paid time off more than the salary offered, the majority of US workers don’t take all of their allotted vacation time. One reason for this may be that unlike in countries such as France, where employees are statutorily entitled and required to such vacation time, US employees don’t enjoy such protections and are employed at-will.

Not only are some employees fearful of losing their job if they take all of their allotted time due to their employment status, but they also feel the need to work more in order to be selected for a promotion or other career advancements. In addition, some employees may feel stressed about the amount of work they are returning to after a vacation and would rather forego some time off.

So in theory, being required to disconnect may sound like a nice protection in the US. However, the realities of the current work culture may not lend itself to employees embracing such protections. Just as employees may not want to come back to a large number of assignments after returning from vacation, they may not like returning to an inbox full of emails that could have easily been reviewed and responded to while on vacation. Sometimes the comfort of knowing what is in the inbox prior to return from vacation is less stressful than the unknown.

If the US enacted a similar law, could you disconnect from work?