We should disconnect unnecessary emails after business hours


Imagine buying a large jar of sugar soaked peanut butter ice cream and finding a message on the label titled, “Top 10 Tips for Losing Weight.”

If you think the first tip might be “Ditch the peanut butter ice cream,” then you don’t think like Apple boss Tim Cook.

Apple last week ad its iPhones would soon have a “powerful tool” called Focus to better handle the blizzard of beeps and pings that can make concentration and relaxation desperately difficult. Users will be able to muzzle Twitter if they’re busy at work, or turn off work emails on weekends.

Or they could do something even more effective: turn off the distracting device or remove its attention-draining apps. Apple would of course prefer you to do neither, as it makes money both from its App Store and from selling iPhones. But you can see why he insists on making it look like he’s doing something to quell the digital din.

A grueling and still active work culture was a problem before the pandemic and has worsened considerably since.

We are in the midst of a “burnout epidemic,” according to Jennifer Moss, an American workplace expert who co-authored a survey of workers in 46 countries last year. Most said labor was getting worse, she wrote in the Harvard Business Review. As one respondent put it: “Emails start at 5:30 am and don’t end until 10 pm because they know you have nowhere to go. For single people without a family, it’s worse, because you can’t say: “I have to go take care of my children”.

These words are supported by official statistics in the UK, showing that people working from home last year worked an average of six hours of unpaid overtime per week, compared to 3.6 hours for those who never worked at home.

Considering that working from home is here to stay after the lockdown, in part because many employees want it, it creates problems. Long working hours kill hundreds of thousands of people a year, says groundbreaking global health organization study said last month. More than 55 hours of work per week can be risky, he noted.

No wonder governments around the world are facing increasing pressure to give workers what has long been seen as a suspect novelty: the right to go offline.

It’s spreading faster than you might think, and not just among docile white-collar workers. Police in the Australian state of Victoria were recently granted the right to turn off after working hours in what their employee the association said was the first such deal for a law enforcement agency. People were “fed up with feeling 24/7 on duty,” and needed a chance to rest and recuperate, the association said. Too many after-hours messages were trivial or could easily wait.

Ireland introduced a code of conduct on the right to disconnect in April and Canada is considering a similar move, as are other countries.

Its good. Fears that such measures will stifle employers’ flexibility are overblown. “This is not a nine to five question,” says Andrew Pakes, UK research director at Prospect Union, which is pushing for disconnection rights. “That doesn’t mean people are going to say, ‘It’s 5:02 p.m. so I’m not going to reply to that email.” It also does not mean that a one-size-fits-all approach is necessary. This is not what happened in France, where a law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate agreements on the best way to disconnect has been in place for more than four years.

Workers at telecommunications company Orange in France do not have to respond to work messages on weekends, days off or evenings – or during training, a spokeswoman said. In other companies, workers returning from vacation can spend an entire day catching up on what they missed without having to deal with clients or internal meetings, said Alex Sirieys, head of the international sector at France’s. FO-Com union.

Sirieys says not all logout policies are perfect. “It depends on the will of the CEO,” he told me last week. Success also depends on workers and managers simply talking to each other, he added, and using common sense, or common sense. Either way, the ability to turn off has always made a lot of sense and never as much as it does now.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark





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