It’s safe to say the people of France are starting 2017 out on a high note. Last week, the country passed a “Right to Disconnect” law, essentially forbidding employers to contact their employees once the workday is over. The country’s Ministry of Labor explained the legislation in a statement by saying, “These measures are designed to ensure respect for rest periods and … balance between work and family and personal life.” French unions propelled the law into reality by arguing that the evolution of technology and its growing presence in the average citizen’s day-to-day life has created “an explosion of undeclared labor” that forces employees to work significantly longer hours than the country’s established 35-hour work week.
I’m sure I’m not the only American who heard about this law and seriously considered hopping on a plane and starting a new life in France (Lorne, any interest in a Fish Consulting Paris office?). From the Statue of Liberty to General Lafayette who helped us win the American Revolution (shout out to Hamilton the musical for my top-notch American history knowledge), France has a long history of giving Americans invaluable gifts. So I couldn’t help but wonder…could the right to disconnect law be our next French import? Would such a law work in America?
I think we all know the answer to that is absolutely not. While we’re not born with an innate addiction to work that our French counterparts lack, American culture instills in its citizens from an early age that working hard is simply the American way. We’re taught all our lives that if you want to achieve the “American Dream,” you’re going to have to work for it. On one hand, the concept embodies the uniquely American optimism that no matter what circumstances you are born into, if you work hard enough you can achieve your dreams. On the other hand, we’ve created a work culture that encourages employees to always be “on,” to always be available, to always put work first. Furthermore, the millennial generation has embraced the work hard, play hard mentality more than any generation in the past, blurring the lines between their personal lives and work lives. As I type this blog post, my fellow millennial roommate is sitting next to me on the couch working – despite the fact that it’s 7:45 p.m. In fact, according to a survey by Vanity Fair, nearly 70 percent of employees under 30 years old did not think it was a problem to keep in touch on work issues while at home. Even more alarming: 56 percent of Americans have not taken a vacation in the last year, according to the insurance company Allianz Global Assistance. That’s equivalent to 135 million people.
I can certainly say that I’m guilty of this. I’m lucky to work for a company where I’m rarely expected to respond to emails at night or take work home with me when I leave for the day, but most of the time, I still do. It’s much more of a natural instinct than a requirement. It’s obvious that I’m a product of my society, and the idea of not checking my email after 5 p.m. just seems unnatural to me. While I believe this legislation is a wonderful move by the French government and shows their concern for their citizen’s well being, I don’t believe it would work in America. As this Huffington Post article explains, Americans operate on what can be called “the treadmill feel” — an almost compulsive desire for continuous promotions, financial gains, followed by a rise in social status, and an increasing social anxiety.
However, France’s new law offers an opportunity for Americans to look in the mirror and realize that our tendency to work ourselves to death isn’t healthy, nor is it even the best way to achieve success, as countless studies have shown that allowing employees to take a break and disconnect vastly improves productivity and attitudes. So without legislation forcing us to maintain a healthy work-life balance, how should our society solve this issue? I think it has to start at the top. CEO’s should take vacations, and encourage their employees to do the same. It’s time we learn to embrace the joy of doing nothing, and redefine the American Dream to be the pursuit of a healthy, fulfilling life – not an endless climb on the corporate ladder.