The Real Takeaway from France’s Work Email “Ban”

April 11, 2014

11:06 am

Despite what you may have read this week, France did not categorically ban work email after 6 pm. But they did teach us a lesson, if we’re open-minded enough to hear it: work-life balance isn’t just about the rules we have in place.

A labor agreement was signed between some French employers and two workers’ unions to ensure that a special category of employees, who are entitled to work more than a 35-hour week, get enough rest. Affecting around 200,000-250,000 people, this agreement includes an obligation to disconnect from work email for 11 hours per day.

Interestingly, the agreement reportedly included not just an obligation to disconnect, but an obligation for employers not to put pressure on employees to flout the agreement.

As we just saw with the Mets paternity leave debacle, rules and policies don’t matter if we make harsh judgments of the people who follow them. If employees who actually disconnect or take their full paternity leave are looked down on or excluded, that’s not promoting work-life balance.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter remarked in her famous article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” simply giving people the option to do something isn’t enough. Sometimes we need to change the “defaults” so workers don’t have to stick their necks out and opt into something that’s frowned upon.

In 1970, Princeton established a tenure-extension policy that allowed female assistant professors expecting a child to request a one-year extension on their tenure clocks. This policy was later extended to men, and broadened to include adoptions. In the early 2000s, two reports on the status of female faculty discovered that only about 3 percent of assistant professors requested tenure extensions in a given year. And in response to a survey question, women were much more likely than men to think that a tenure extension would be detrimental to an assistant professor’s career.


So in 2005, under President Shirley Tilghman, Princeton changed the default rule. The administration announced that all assistant professors, female and male, who had a new child would automatically receive a one-year extension on the tenure clock, with no opt-outs allowed. Instead, assistant professors could request early consideration for tenure if they wished. The number of assistant professors who receive a tenure extension has tripled since the change.

She cites another example, which involves remote work:

It is one thing, for instance, for an organization to allow phone-ins to a meeting on an ad hoc basis, when parenting and work schedules collide—a system that’s better than nothing, but likely to engender guilt among those calling in, and possibly resentment among those in the room. It is quite another for that organization to declare that its policy will be to schedule in-person meetings, whenever possible, during the hours of the school day—a system that might normalize call-ins for those (rarer) meetings still held in the late afternoon.

What can we learn from France’s new agreement? Besides the fact that American media are hasty to call the French lazy, maybe we should get off our high horses a little and examine our own policies. Our attempts to foster work-life balance may not be working if we don’t recognize the psychological judgments and pressures that go along with them. France may not have it all figured out, but neither do we.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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