“I am sending you this email at a time that works for me. I don’t expect you to respond to it until normal business hours, or when it suits your own work-life balance. I encourage you to make guiltless work-life choices and support flexible working.”
Starting in 2019, that paragraph appeared in the signature of every e-mail sent by a good friend of mine to……..anyone. When I read it the first time, I thought: “Oh come on. Don’t you know that none of us can make guiltless work-life choices?”
I put that peevish thought away until last week when someone else’s e-mail arrived, this time announcing: “My working day may not be your working day. Please do not feel obligated to reply to this email outside of your normal working hours.”
This one was shorter, at least. But what I didn’t know is that both warnings come from a law enacted in 2016 in France. “Le droit à la déconnexion” is a brand-new human right, like its cousin the right to be forgotten. Both come, as my late mother used to say when things got overwhelming, from “too much of a muchness” around how we use technology. Or rather, how it uses us.
The right to disconnect regulates when you’re expected to be ‘on’. As Lauren Collins wrote in The New Yorker when the bill became law in France: “The right to disconnect is effectively the right to be forgotten between the hours of six and nine.”
It’s designed mainly to protect people who work for big companies like Volkswagen which turns off its servers after-hours, or Daimler which lets its employees automatically delete emails they get while they’re on vacation.
And of course, it couldn’t foretell the pandemic where billions of workers have been on their computers at home for nearly a year now, when the boundary between work and life has been effectively ghosted.
And of course, the French are different from North Americans. The reason we envy them is that they view life and work as two separate things, “even if that means that someone’s spreadsheet doesn’t get finished on time.” Lauren Collins then pointed to a study of US workers that found 67% had experienced “phantom rings” – they were worried someone was trying to phone them even when their phones weren’t there.
But while most of us think in some vague, undefined, unFrench way that being on e-mail 18 hours a day can’t be good for us, this week’s New Yorker provided the first evidence of just how unhealthy our use of e-mail is. Both physically and mentally.
The article titled “E-mail is making us miserable,” catalogues, via many studies, such negative effects as “the longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour,” and the ‘sub-optimal’ health that results not from overusing e-mail, but from using it at all.
It’s not just your own health that e-mail puts at risk. It’s the organization you work for. “A Harvard Business School professor found that giving a group of management consultants predictable time off from e-mail increased the percentage of them who planned to stay at the firm ‘for the long term’ from forty per cent to fifty-eight per cent.”
Think about that number. Just the prospect of relief, and not even the extent or length of it, is enough to significantly boost the odds that you’ll stay with your current employer. This is a huge benefit to both you and the company, and it doesn’t cost either of you a nickel.
Sign me up for that. Let’s all lobby our employers for our Right to Disconnect.
But who am I kidding? I’m not an incipient e-mail addict. I’m a hopeless junkie.
My response to e-mail is pavlovian. The e-mail lands in my inbox, and the tiny drop of dopamine lands in my prefrontal cortex.
I say I want to quit, though Jean did catch me checking for e-mails on my phone when we had a face-to-face dinner last week.
I fully intend to quit, though I check my e-mail after I open my eyes in the morning, but before I pee.
I will quit for sure, though I’ve tried many times and failed miserably to stay off for even half a day …when I was kayaking …on Georgian Bay ….in a storm.
But what do addicts do better than just about anyone and all the time?
So perhaps it’s time I exercised that other right, my right to remain silent.
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