This time last year, the French government implemented a provision, called the “Right to Disconnect,” requiring all companies with fifty or more employees to negotiate and agree on a policy to reduce the intrusion of work into private lives, especially in regard to email use outside of work hours. The law was created in response to a 2015 study by the French Ministry of Labour that warned of the health-impact of “info-obesity,” or the stress, burnout, and sleeplessness that comes from constantly monitoring work emails and messages.
While it’s certainly debatable whether governments or individual companies are the right vehicles for championing this cause to digitally disconnect, there’s no denying that we all need to take a step back from our screens to avoid burnout.
As it has been one year since the new law has taken effect, there are a few lessons we can learn from behavior science to improve our own culture of busyness:
Even in tech-centric 2018, the workday still needs a clear beginning and end.
Yes, we live in the age where the world never sleeps, but we still need to establish turn on and turn off times for our work day. What’s beautiful about technology is that work time in the modern day doesn’t have to be from 9 to 5 for everyone. Depending on the flexibility of your job, your work hours can vary. For example, you could work 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., then break for the afternoon (perhaps to enjoy a long mealtime, for which Europeans are notorious) and work a few more hours in the evening when things are quiet. As one French executive put it in an interview with NPR, “Your boss shouldn’t be sending you emails when you’re at lunch enjoying a leg of lamb and a good Bordeaux.’
Work needs to be scheduled, and it shouldn’t be too much.
A 2014 Stanford study found that productivity and output substantially plateaued after working 50 hours per week, and sharply declined further once an employee reached 60+ hours per week. In another study, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business Professor Erin Reid found that managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and employees who only pretended to. While Reid's Harvard Business Review article appears focused on men, he equally included women (working in and outside of the home) in his research. Men and women, as a whole, aren’t really producing more in quantity or quality when we stay connected outside of the 40- to 50-hour range.
Disconnecting isn’t just about avoiding work stress.
The right to disconnect law deals with workplace burnout specifically, but, in reality, we need to intentionally disconnect in all other areas of our life as well. Inordinate and unregulated time spent on social media, surfing the web, and on our phones can be just as bad for our mental and physical health as working around the clock. Pulitzer Prize finalist author Nicholas Carr argues in his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains that constant Internet use has a profound negative impact on the way we think, concentrate, and our ability to retain information. In an All Things Considered interview, Carr notes that we overtax our brains and then find “distractions more distracting”—and that was back in 2010. Our relationship with the Internet has only grown more reliant since then.
A group of neurologists from the research organization Kovert Designs decided to study the effect of a complete digital detox on 35 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other influencers. The group was taken to a desert in Morocco and were required to give up all of their digital devices while the neurologists observed their behavior. They found that after only three days of digital detoxing, the participants' posture improved, their eye-contact with others in the group increased, they noted improved memory, and they slept better. Interestingly, they also felt they were more eager to make a transformation for the better while on the digital detox, like changing work habits, rethinking relationships, or recommitting to health goals.
In sum, the right to disconnect should involve a deep need to disconnect, either from work or from other digital distractions, to create the mental space we need to truly improve our lives and connect more completely with other people. Schedule a period of “off-time” every day—a space of several hours where you don’t touch your phone, open a computer, or turn on the TV. You’ll reap the health benefits of a daily digital detox before you know it.
You are your own gatekeeper.
As good as the "Right to Disconnect" law sounds, waiting for the government or your boss to force you into practicing healthy work habits isn’t a great idea. Even in France, the way the law stands now, there is no sanction for failing to institute the law in an office. Plus, the specific measures by which companies are required to comply are vague. One company can choose to use a technological solution to disable email after a certain hour while another company can choose to establish a loose time limit. The law encourages a social respect for downtime and it does a considerable amount of good to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding a 24/7 work week. However, the reality remains that the best regulator of your connection time is you.
If you don’t make a conscious decision about how much time you want to spend on and offline each day, you will find it impossible not to get pulled into the constant state of distractedness most of us suffer from. Set up gatekeeping tools for yourself: Download an app like DinnerMode, which prevents you from accessing any other apps on your phone during dinner time, or try Onward, an app that tracks how many hours you spend each day on your phone and helps you set goals to reduce your use.
Most importantly, we should be having constructive conversations with our bosses and colleagues about digital expectations around work. If nights, weekends, or other times of the day are important to you, have a respectful and honest conversation about how you can continue to be productive at work while taking the time you need to avoid stress and burnout. After all, as French culture indicates, work should complement our personal and family life, not replace it.