Last May, France passed the El Khomri law, an omnibus bill that sought to change many aspects of working life. It was a controversial proposed law that contained lightening-rod elements that sparked protests, some of them violent.
However, tucked away in the bill in what has become known as “Article 25,” is a provision that allows workers to disconnect from company email while away from work. The law argues that rampant impingement of technology on our personal time, particularly email, has negative impacts on the health and well-being of workers. So, the law in France now allows people the right to ignore email on weekends or any time after normal working hours.
The law was debated, and even celebrated, by workplace and health experts and commentators around the world. For many years now, mental health professionals have produced studies that show the constant barrage of communication from employers has severely compromised downtime and contributed to an epidemic of depression and workplace burnout.
A recent study produced by The Future Work Centre, and released in January, did not mince words. "Our research shows that email is a double-edged sword,” wrote Dr. Richard MacKinnon. “Whilst it can be a valuable communication tool, it's clear that it's a source of stress or frustration for many of us. The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure.
“But the habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages and the unwritten organizational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and well-being."
Unfortunately, it is unlikely many other countries will follow the same path as France, a country renowned for its progressive, even intrusive workplace health and safety laws. That does not mean, however, that we can’t take some action on our own.
Some of us don’t know where to draw the line when it comes to our mobile devices, and find ourselves unable to disconnect. That’s too bad because decompressing—a term commonly used to describe the act of disconnecting from work—is critical to reducing stress, stimulating creativity and ultimately being productive. There is no shame in it. I don't feel it's necessary to pathologize the use of technology, but I realized that I needed to establish a quiet time for myself during the day when I could unplug. This is an approach I learned from people much wiser than I.
In a letter to a friend, Albert Einstein once celebrated “a mode of living in which we find the joy of life and the joy of work harmoniously combined.” Einstein himself found he needed distraction in pleasures such as sailing and playing the violin, things he said helped him be productive.
However, the joy that Einstein talks about can only happen if we find balance. If work is constantly intruding on our lives, at all times of the day and night and over the weekend, that is not a “harmonious” combination.
Look for opportunities to decompress during the day. You don’t need to wait for a week vacation. Take an hour at lunch, leave your phone behind and enjoy a relaxing cappuccino with a good book. At the end of the workday, take an hour for yourself to do something fun that allows you to leave the challenges of the workday behind completely. In the morning, get up a little early and give yourself an hour with no distractions and take a brisk walk.
There may be some anxiety associated with unplugging from technology. But it doesn’t need to be for extended periods of time. Brief respites—just an hour or two—away from communication devices are sustainable. And in the end, rest assured that by disconnecting, you’re actually contributing to better job performance in the long run.