Should Employers Ban After-Hours Work Email?

Employee Asleep on Desk

Earlier this month, two French employee unions decided to show how they felt about work/life balance by signing a legally binding agreement that would forbid employees from checking work email after a long day at their desks.

The agreement will affect only 250,000 employees in the technology and consulting sectors, according to The Guardian, although a number of them work for Google, Facebook, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)—not exactly firms known for allowing their workers to unplug from the grid.

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The Guardian wasn’t pleased by that prospect, to say the least. “While we’re staring down the barrel of another late one/extra shift/all-nighter, across the Channel they’re sipping sancerre and contemplating at least the second half of a cinq à sept before going home to enjoy the rest of that lovely ‘work/133-hours-per-week-of-life’ balance,” the article’s author opined. “C’est all right pour some, quoi?”

Mais oui. But The Economist offers some additional details that put the deal into sharper focus. In short, this isn’t a case of French workers turning off their iPhones and BlackBerry devices promptly at 6 P.M. every night—the text of the agreement suggests an individual obligation to “disconnect communications tools” after a 13-hour day in order to get some rest, which doesn’t seem terribly restrictive.

While it’s tempting to burn the proverbial midnight oil in order to get things done, studies show that a constant grind is ultimately detrimental to employees’ effectiveness over the long term. “It absolutely hurts a startup to have a 24/7 grindstone pace. People are more likely to make mistakes and catastrophic bugs at 4 a.m., than 4 p.m.,” Venky Ganesan, managing director of Menlo Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif., told Dice in February. “You would rather people work consistently hard and smart than do extremes.”

Nonetheless, many young startup founders—driven by the need to get a product out before anyone else—regularly engage in 80-hour workweeks and unending email. That’s their choice, and it’ll certainly pay off for a few; but chances are good that they won’t be doing it in France. If your employer (or union) asked you to stop checking email at a certain point, would you do so?

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