The big problem with France's 'right to disconnect' law
What's needed is not a legal change, but a cultural change
This week, a new labor law went into effect in France giving workers the "right to disconnect" from their work email when the workday comes to an end. Under the law, companies with more than 50 employees must put in place a system so that work-related email doesn't bother workers during their evenings, weekends, or vacation days.
The goal of the new law is to reduce burnout and improve employees' work-life balance. "Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work," Socialist lawmaker Benoit Hamon told the BBC back in May. "They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog."
In America, the law was met with enthusiasm and applause. As a conservative, and a Frenchman, I have mixed feelings about the law. I think the principle it is trying to convey is sound. But the law itself is a terrible idea.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between French and American culture is how we approach work. The cliché of Americans as having that vaunted Protestant work ethic, and French people having a more relaxed Latin Catholic outlook on work, is more or less true. I used to be a strong proponent of what French people would call an Anglo-Saxon view: Work is a positive good, working as hard as you possibly can is a high virtue, and people who talk about effete concepts — like work-life balance — are ninnies. Hard work creates economic growth, which benefits everyone, and a free market will cause harder workers to accrue more rewards from their work, which is awesome.
I'm not a fan of the French extreme perspective, which sees work as only drudgery, and sees work relationships as almost exclusively adversarial and alienating. We need work for self-realization, and America is right to valorize that.
That being said, there are reasons to wish for a happy medium between the American work ethic and French work ethic. At the macroeconomic level, what creates value is not hard work, but smart work — productivity. Germans like to view their country's healthy economy as the product of their hard work, as compared to the "lazy" Greeks who destroyed their own economy. But actually, Greeks work more hours per capita than Germans, who are some of the "laziest" in Europe. Germans have a great economy not because they work longer hours, but because they're more productive, which means they need to work less to compete; meanwhile, Greeks are less productive, which means they must work harder for the same unit of economic output. So what will make America great again (gulp), or France, or wherever, is smart work, not hard work.
This is also true at the personal and firm level. Now that I have a family, I view work differently. During the go-go days of finance, it was regarded as a badge of honor by young 20-somethings to burn their lives out in investment banks and consulting firms. Many elite firms have a culture that requires working insane hours, and responding to emails around the clock, which is deeply unhealthy. I have seen more than one family destroyed by white-collar workaholism, and no work accomplishment is worth that. I have also witnessed how disconnecting from email really does improve your connection with your family.
Since smart work, not hard work, wins the day, this might also be a winning strategy at the firm level. Putting in hours still matters — there's a reason why Silicon Valley valorizes the all-nighter — but there's a lot to be said for the idea that knowledge workers who get ample sleep, leisure, and family time think better and are more productive over the long run than workaholic worker bees.
So I get what the law is trying to do. But it's still a bad law.
You have to keep in mind the overall context of France's incredibly arcane, demanding labor laws. France's labor code is basically the equivalent of the U.S. tax code: an impossible, incomprehensible mess that it's impossible to be in compliance of. France's byzantine work rules, like mandatory doctor's visits when you start a new contract, or a requirement to get government approval before workers can eat lunch at their desks, discourage hiring by raising the cost of labor, since every employee is a walking code violation. And this new law is an excellent example why: You can add a few such regulations to your labor laws, but if you add thousands, your regulations become an unholy mess.
But there's a deeper principle at work here. While limiting work and having a thicker boundary between work life and private life is sound, a one-size-fits-all legalized approach is the wrong way to go about it. Some people really do want to work around the clock. And in some jobs, it's necessary. In a meritocratic, high-tech world, people are always going to be driven to try to out-compete everyone else by putting in insane hours. What's needed is not a legal change, but a cultural change, whereby managers and CEOs recognize themselves as stewards of their workers' productivity and enablers of their balanced life. This is much harder than merely passing a law.