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Would the 'right to disconnect' help workers in The City That Doesn’t Sleep?

A first-in-the-U.S. proposal would give employees in New York City the right to ignore work-related emails and texts outside of working hours.

Everyone who doesn’t check their work email “just one more time” before turning in for the night, please raise your hand.

OK, both of you are freaks and excused from reading this article. For the rest of us, a New York City legislator may be blazing the way to giving us our lives back.

City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr. has introduced the first legislation in the United States that would prohibit most employers from contacting their workers electronically during their off hours. To be clear, under the proposed law, employers can send you whatever they want. They just can’t require you to read it or answer, and they can’t retaliate if you don’t.

Espinal’s concern is that employees don't really have a clear line on when their workday ends and when their personal lives begin—"which, in turn, plays a very negative role on their social life and overall state of health,” Espinal says. “I think it's important that those boundaries are drawn and make sure that the employees have the time they need to disconnect, refresh, charge, spend time with their family, and be able to go back to work the next day and perform at their optimal levels.” Millennials get significantly more after-hours work emails than other generations but are the least likely to send them.

Not all workers are covered under the proposed legislation. Government workers are exempt from the law’s protections, as are business with fewer than 10 employees. Workers who are on call 24 hours a day get to disconnect only on their days off and vacations. Independent contractors who aren’t employees had best leave their phones on, too—as if they wouldn’t anyway—because they wouldn’t be protected. And if it’s an emergency, employers can contact their workers without fear of penalty.

The penalties aren’t trivial. If an employee complains and the complaint is upheld, an employer could be dinged $250 for requiring someone to access their communications, $500 and full compensation for retaliation, and $2,500 plus back wages and their job back for being fired. That’s in addition to civil penalties of as much as $1,000.

Work email limits new here, but not in Europe

Although this legislation is new in the United States, there has long been concern that electronic communications make it impossible to separate from work.

Espinal says his inspiration comes from Europe. “This is an idea that came out of France,” he says. “I thought it was an important conversation to have here in New York City and in this country. I don't feel that companies and corporations will feel motivated to take on these policies on their own and just need a little push from the government.”

Of course, that “little push from the government” rubs some people the wrong way, and they suggest that the better course is to enlighten private industry.

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“The new law in France, while well-intentioned, could never work in the U.S.,” says Frankie Russo, CEO of creative agency Potenza. “More government intervention into our workplace, regardless of how favorable it may be toward workers, would be frowned upon. But such an effort led by private companies could change the landscape of work and play.”

Russo notes that in Germany, Volkswagen set its servers to not send or receive email between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.—and competitors Daimler and BMW followed suit.

Towards work-life balance

Kristina Hallett, a board-certified clinical psychologist and executive coach, says the ability to disconnect is a net positive for business. Burnout is a significant issue among the American workforce, she says, and “it results in decreased productivity, lost time, and employee turnover.” A main cause of burnout is overwork, Hallet says, exemplified in the “respond at all hours” email culture that many companies adopted. “Allowing workers the freedom to ‘turn off’ with impunity once the workday is over can facilitate greater job satisfaction and increased productivity during the workday,” she says.

“It’s a shame that we may require actual government intervention, but this may be the ultimate training tool,” says Rachel Kenyon, a Quickbooks consultant in Tennessee. “Perhaps those at the top of the company food chain need some training in appropriate expectations and work-life balance. Perhaps, if we mandate a break, those rule makers will be reminded of this key fact: Human beings are more productive, more creative, and generally happier when they are able to spend time doing things they love without work pressure looming like a storm cloud.”

If companies treated their people better, Hallett suggests, the need to disconnect might not turn out to be so urgent. “It’s not just about setting boundaries and limits,” she says. “There are actions that organizations can take that will improve the culture and morale of the workplace, especially through the use of positive psychology techniques and mindset, including the practices of gratitude, connection, engagement, and finding ‘meaning’ in work.”

Is the "right to disconnect" realistic here?

In a globalized flexible workforce, the "right to disconnect" just might not be practical, suggests Jon Brodsky, U.S. country manager for personal finance site Finder.com. “I believe these laws have the potential to inhibit rather than foster these values,” says Brodsky, whose company is based in New York. “Legally restricting the hours that employers can contact their employers doesn’t take into account global growth, remote opportunities, or flexible work arrangements that allow team members who may have returned to study or are working around parenting hours remain in the workforce.”

“This law, if passed, would only serve to stifle the growth of New York-based businesses and restrict the opportunities available to employees requiring flexible arrangements,” Brodsky adds.

France is not the only nation trying to establish the right to disconnect. The Italian Parliament approved such a law about a year ago, but critics complain it will be largely toothless. In the Philippines, the Department of Labor and Employment (the acronym for which really is DOLE, an odd term for a labor bureaucracy) says employees have the right to not respond to off-hour communications, but employers need to set a policy. Legislation has been proposed to clear that up.

And in Argentina, Christian Rennella, CEO of financial comparison site elMejorTrato, says he is working with the government to pass a law that would prohibit companies from contacting employees between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. “After nine years of hard work in our company with more than 100 employees, I believe that the biggest reason why we were successful was because of our investment in work-life balance and respect for employees' rights to disconnect from work,” Rennella says. “Together with our company, 54 new companies have been added in the last six months, and this helps push this initiative further until the law is passed successfully.”

For better or worse, there appears to be little danger that the lights will be dimming on Broadway any time soon. Espinal’s bill has yet to get much in the way of traction among leaders of the New York City Council or Office of the Mayor, and despite an initial media splash, a public hearing isn’t yet on the calendar. “The reality is that there are a lot of mixed feelings across the board,” says one supporter, “so it’s just a matter of showing people why this matters, why this can actually work.”

Right to disconnect from work email: Lessons for leaders

  • The right to disconnect is a Thing. It’s not here yet, but people are thinking about it.
  • Some enlightened employers are already tempering the impulse to bug workers during off hours.
  • Disconnecting from your workers may be cheaper and more effective—as well as smarter—than burning them out.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.