The Right to Disconnect From Work

On Jan. 1, 2017, French workers gained a right which is found absolutely nowhere else: the right to ignore their bosses over the weekend. Companies with over 50 employees are required to set hours when workers will no longer send or receive emails, pushing back against corporations’ digitally-enabled incursion into private time.

In the United States, younger employees are hit hardest by this invasion of their free time and are seen as inferior workers because, according to one scathing article, “many millennials leave work on the dot of 5 p.m. every day and refuse to answer work calls or emails over the weekend.” The fact that this is absolutely their right, as well as the way work should function in a healthy society, seems never to have crossed the author’s mind. Employees who are willing to work beyond their stated hours are seen as more dedicated, creating a race to the bottom. Workers who naively think that a day off means genuine freedom from work will miss out on promotions and raises, ratcheting up the pressure to be perpetually available.

While this trend is more prevalent in office work, it also occurs in the kind of retail and food service jobs that many MSU students depend on to get by during the school year. Students have class and homework during their days off and the demand for constant availability can limit their ability to succeed academically. In my own school-year job, I was threatened with termination because I went hiking on my day off and my boss couldn’t reach me on my cell phone. Retailers and fast food restaurants schedule their employees so thinly that any single low-level employee calling in sick means that employers are left either losing hundreds or thousands of dollars of profit, which cannot be sacrificed, or taking one of their employees’ days off, which always can.

Finally, to those for whom the right to genuinely be free on a day off doesn’t seem to be worth protecting in and of itself: giving employees the freedom to disengage from work reduces their stress and makes them better workers. A study from the University of British Columbia showed that limiting the number of times employees can check their email significantly reduces their stress; another from Colorado State University showed that even the anticipation of having to check work email after hours significantly increases employees’ stress levels. Work-related stress both degrades employees’ ability to do their jobs and accounts for an estimated $125 to $190 billion in medical costs each year, much of it borne by employers. Even for managers feeling the heat and smelling the brimstone from the board of directors a few floors up, squeezing every last drop of productivity out of their workers will be easier if those workers at least have something left to give.

The U.S. should follow France’s lead in guaranteeing its working class genuine freedom from work on their days off and, failing that, corporations ought to do so if only to extract greater productivity from their employees. If workers aren’t spared from having to keep up with the demands of the workplace even in their free time, they’re never really on a day off — they’re just on a break.