You (Don't) Have The Right To Disconnect

How many emails do you send and receive on a daily basis?

If you’re like the typical employee, you send and receive about 115 business emails per day. Sending and receiving all this email is time consuming; McKinsey Global Institute found that an average employee spends about 13 hours per week reading and responding to email.

And if you’re similar to the typical employee, you’re reading and responding to these emails around the clock. According to a survey conducted by Adobe Systems, 87% of respondents admitted that they looked at business emails outside of working hours. The typical respondent spent 3.2 hours per day on work email. Christine Naragon, of Adobe Systems, said “Americans are so concerned about keeping in touch they monitor emails around the clock, in socially unacceptable settings and during potentially dangerous times.” According to Good Technology, 38% of employees routinely check work email at the dinner table, 50% of employees routinely check email while still in bed, and 69% of employees won’t go to bed without first checking their email.

We know that work interruptions can be a productivity drain, but did you know that it takes employees around 16 minutes to refocus on their tasks after handling email. On average, employees check their email 36 times per hour, or 288 times per day (assuming an 8 hour work day). It’s no wonder that we’re working longer hours – most of our time at work isn’t spent working!

The consequences of email overload aren’t limited to just lost productivity; it also has consequences for our health and well-being. A team of researchers at UC Irvine and the U.S. Army studied the effects of email access on heart rate and ability to focus. Using heart monitors to track participants, the researchers found that limiting email access dramatically reduces stress levels. A 2015 research report from the U.K.’s Future Work Centre found that those who monitor email in off-hours experience higher stress and less work-life satisfaction. “Higher email pressure was associated with more examples of work negatively impacting home life and home life negatively impacting performance at work.”

So, what can we do about this? France has adopted a unique strategy. Effective January 1, 2017, French workers won the “right to disconnect” from email, smartphones and other electronic leashes once their working day has ended. The new rule requires companies with 50 or more employees to set out-of-office hours when employees cannot send, reply to, digital communications. In a statement, the Ministry of Labor said “[t]hese measures are designed to ensure respect for rest periods and … balance between work and family and personal life.” The new rule is designed to address “the burden of work and the informational overburden, the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life”, all of which are risks associated with the usage of digital technology.

This problem is not confined to France. As Lauren Collins at The New Yorker writes, “A recent study of American workers found that sixty-seven per cent had experienced ‘phantom rings’ – they were worried that someone was trying to get in touch with them, even when they were theoretically free. The right to disconnect, then, isn’t a French problem, but rather a French response to one with which we are all grappling.”

Would “The Right To Disconnect” work for us here in the United States? I don’t think so. While there have been some “experiments” with this (for example, in 2008 Intel experimented with “No Email Fridays” and Tuesday morning “quiet times”, in which 300 engineers and managers set their email and IM clients to offline), too many organizations have created a work culture in which employees are expected to respond to emails right away, regardless of time of day or day of the week. There is an expectation of rapid response, and we may not even be aware that this high expectation has been set. Most of us don’t explicitly evaluate employees’ email response time on routine performance evaluations (although we may be doing it implicitly…). Undoing this expectation of rapid response requires a cultural shift of monumental proportions – in my opinion, not something that can be done via regulation or legislation. But if we’re truly concerned about the health and well-being of our employees, it’s something we should be thinking about. 

Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics at Cornell University. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on economic theory and labor economics in the College of Arts and Sciences and in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Throughout her career, Stephanie has completed research on a variety of topics including wage determination, pay gaps and inequality, and performance-based compensation systems. She frequently provides expert commentary in media outlets such as The New York Times, CBC, and NPR, and has published papers in a variety of journals.


This post originally appeared on Compensation Cafe
Author: Stephanie Thomas