France recently mandated that its workers have the legal right to ignore emails after work hours. Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.
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Disconnecting after work will reduce stress, increase productivity

French workers now have the right to ignore any communication from their managers outside of work hours, including emails. While this new law might seem trivial, it’s the most recent of a long string of victories for workers’ rights across Europe.

Over the last 30 years, advancements in communication technologies, automation, and global trade have caused an unprecedented shift in Western labour markets. Europe is adapting to thrive in this new economy, and Canada must follow suit if we plan on remaining competitive.

France’s “right to disconnect” from work is hardly a unique idea. Germany passed nearly identical legislation in 2013, and similar pushes from labour unions and corporations have been ongoing for nearly a decade. The goal is simple: reduce stress, and promote a greater  work-life balance in the workforce.

Coupled with initiatives like Sweden’s six-hour work day or Italy’s two-hour lunch breaks, workers in Europe are being offered more time off than ever before. Despite the touted health benefits, many have expressed concern over the impact these workers’ rights advancements could have on Europe’s economic health. However, these objections stem from an outmoded understanding of the demands of modern industry and Western economics as a whole.

In the manufacturing sector, the relationship between time worked and product produced is obvious—if a cobbler can make six pairs of shoes in six hours it stands to reason that an eight-hour work day would result in eight pairs of shoes. But with the manufacturing exodus from the Western world this logic is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

In the 1950s, encouraging office workers to stay later meant more paperwork could be stamped, more letters could be sent and more reports could be filed. The limiting factor for a firm’s productivity was not human, it was technological. As computers entered the mainstream the tedium of everyday business became increasingly unnecessary—yet the pressure to maximize man hours remained.

While employees continue their nine to five schedules, various reports suggest that, with technology doing most of the grunt work, only three to five of those hours are truly productive.

With most technological limitations behind us, a corporation’s success is now dependant on its employees’ ability to communicate, think creatively, and problem solve. These “soft skills” are directly impacted by the worker’s mental well-being—while a disgruntled cobbler might still make acceptable shoes, an undermotivated financier makes poor market calls. As Canada continues to move towards a service-based economy, the mental health of our citizens is not just a quality of life concern, it is an economic concern.

Being constantly connected to your work via emails and more causes an incredible amount of stress with no tangible benefits. If an office worker in 2017 can’t effectively fill an eight hour day, why make them work even longer?

Rather than forcing employees to work around the clock, we need to focus on maximizing their performance during the few hours a day that they are truly productive. By following France’s lead Canada can create a happier, healthier workforce that’s better equipped to take on the challenges ahead.