You may well have seen on the media that the French have introduced a law banning employers from sending emails to staff after 6pm. Well, that’s not strictly true, but it made a good headline for the tabloids to berate the French!
In reality, what has happened in France is that Trade Unions representing workers in the technical and digital sectors have entered into a legally binding agreement with employers prohibiting employers from contacting their staff after work. The problem which they are seeking to address is a real one – employees in the professions or in management roles being sent emails from their employers, and from customers and suppliers, at all hours, and being expected to respond to them. The problem is increasing, and with the majority of people now having smart phones which tell them when emails are received, it can be very real.
In 1998 the United Kingdom adopted the Working Time Directive which, with exceptions, limited an employee to working an average of 48 hours a week. The employee could opt out of this, and many did. Indeed, when the rules were introduced, the greatest demand to opt out came from employees who did not want to lose overtime. Interestingly one of the exceptions to the 48 hour working week applies to people who by the very nature of their job partially determine their own hours. This includes many managers and professionals. There may also be stated working hours in peoples’ contracts of employment, but for senior employees the hours are often stated to be “as required for the proper performance of the duties”. This is fine, and most managers and professionals want to do a good job and be available to deal with issues outside work.
Of course, the Working Time Regulations were drawn up long before the common usage of mobile devices to pick up emails. Some will remember those happy days when after you left the office you were in reality only contactable by phone. Somehow, unless something is genuinely urgent, people don’t seem to ring colleagues in the evening, and certainly respect a person’s right to have an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Then came remote laptop access (but you could always log off) and then smart phones and the like. Somehow senders of emails seem entirely insensitive towards the recipient and what they might be doing in their own time away from work, and although mobile devices do have off buttons, few people seem to use them.
So would a ban on emails outside working hours work over here? For many people, it would make no real difference. The majority of workers do not receive many emails out of hours, and most that are received are left until the next day back in the office. For those who are inundated with emails out of hours, a ban would probably not work. After all, you can only ban the employer from sending you emails, not your customers or suppliers. You also need to consider international businesses – whose time zone should you respect? That said, in December 2011, Volkswagen announced that their servers would stop sending emails 30 minutes after the end of employees’ shifts, and only start again half an hour before the employee returned to work. Volkswagen’s move was followed by Germany’s labour ministry. Somehow the media didn’t make such an issue of this – after all the Germans are more efficient than us, and Volkswagen can hardly be described as an inefficient business as it produced $28.6 billion profit in 2013.
Probably the best solution for those who find themselves inundated with emails outside of working hours is for them to learn to use the off switch!
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).