Le disconnect

Should we consider French ‘unplugging’ law in the US?

By Sarah Sidlow

Illustration by Angel Boligan


From the country that brought you Coco Chanel, universal health care, and the Statue of Liberty comes the latest in French fashion: the right to disconnect. Oui.

Starting Jan. 1, 2017, French lawmakers introduced a series of work-related legislation that the government claimed was crucial for the health and well-being of its workers. Among those laws was an intervention of sorts, which said companies with more than 50 employees would be obligated to set up hours (normally during the evening and weekend) when staff are not to send or respond to emails.

While it’s been criticized by some as a ban on work-related emails (and would that really be so bad?), this law and many others were drafted with the goal of curbing employee burnout. Some firms have already adopted the policy, carving out the 10 hours between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., for example, as quiet time.

The measure was introduced by Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri, who commissioned a report submitted in September 2015 that warned about the health impact of “info-obesity.” While there doesn’t seem to be a disciplinary component for companies that fail to impose a switch-off period, legislators hope individual companies and the robust French labor unions will serve as the power-down police.

There’s research to back up the argument that a little less screen time is good for employees’ overall health. Our constant digital connections mean we’re “working”—or at least stressing about work—for more than just the time we spend at our desks. The same research also says that miiight not be the healthiest thing.

According to NPR, a study out of the University of British Columbia found that participants who were assigned to check their email only three times a day were found to be less stressed than those who could check their emails continuously. Another out of Colorado State University found that even the anticipatory stress of expecting after-hours emails might have a negative effect on employee well-being.

Moreover, there are studies that indicate all that multitasking, email checking, and work stressing actually add up to a less effective employee.

But there are also those who claim the benefits of being constantly plugged in outweigh the occasional eye-bag. Harvard Business Review writer Alexandra Samuel argues that digital overload helps us sharpen our focus and develop good managerial habits by challenging us to choose where we’ll invest our attention. Basically, consider the lifestyle digital homework—which strengthens the skills necessary to thrive in the digital age.

Also, while the intention of a mandatory unplug sesh may sound logical, it might be too late to turn back now. Pew Research Center indicates that today, 68 percent of U.S. adults have a smartphone—and the most plugged-in populations are those of working age, or those in households earning $75,000 and up annually. One has to wonder if unplugging would just result in being left behind. Given our global economy, and the particularly American drive to work, is it possible to separate corporate success from digital access? And if your company does conduct work with business partners around the world, is it really wise to power-down when others are pouring their morning coffee?

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at


Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should we have the right to unplug?


French/American disconnect

America could learn a lot from France’s willingness to unplug

By Tim Smith

You’ve got to admire France. As if Bordeaux wine, Brie cheese, croissants, and Maurice Chevalier weren’t enough to brag about, their legislators have passed a law that employees are not required to check their work emails when they’re off duty. I didn’t realize that was a job requirement over there. Apparently, the French have different work expectations than us American underachievers.

When did this become a legal issue that required government intervention? Don’t we all have the right not to conduct business on our own time if we don’t want to? I thought this was a given in a free society, like childbirth and binge watching Bonanza reruns on Hulu.

Studies have shown that workers who stay disconnected from the company inbox when they’re away from the office have a lower rate of stress and lead happier lives. In this country, it’s what the Fair Labor Standard is all about. An eight-hour workday, leaving the remaining time for leisure and rest. If you choose to do work tasks on your own time, that should be your choice. Even those of us who work jobs requiring that we be on call 24/7 have some flexibility. Why make a federal case out of it?

The problem goes deeper than a desire to remain competitive in the workplace, though. We’ve all become addicted to electronic media in some form. Most people get their daily news, weather, and sports fixes online. Cable news networks continue to enjoy the highest viewership they’ve had in years, and movies on demand are increasingly popular among the couch potato set. The United States Postal Service moans about being in the red because most of us send emails instead of letters. Brick-and-mortar retailers are feeling the heat as well, thanks to the convenience of online shopping. We’re constantly being encouraged to pay bills and do our banking online. And don’t get me started on inconsiderate drivers who cause more accidents than icy roads because they were talking on their cell phones instead of paying attention.

I have made it a personal policy for many years not to take work home with me. That means no paperwork, reports, or projects that I can do on company time. I am also not hooked into my employer’s email on my computer or phone, even though I have that option. I may call in to check on something important, but not very often. I also utilize caller ID and voicemail. My philosophy has always been that my off-work time belongs to my family, my friends, and me.

Some of my co-workers have opted to stay connected to the job through their smartphones, claiming that they want to be on top of things and avoid surprises. I’ll admit that I only like surprises on Christmas and my birthday, but if it’s something really urgent, they’ll call me. It’s interesting to note that none of my peers who engage in this practice have been rewarded with a promotion yet. These are the same people who will obsessively check their Facebook page throughout the day, afraid that they’ll miss the latest video link or joke.

Several years ago, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Indianapolis Bookfest. The theme that year was promoting literacy among children and young adults. I gave a lively speech extolling the virtues of public libraries, books, magazines, newspapers, and cursive handwriting (remember that?). At the conclusion, I received a terrific ovation when I encouraged those present to promote literacy among their kids by telling them to turn off the TV and the computer, put away the damned Gameboy, and read a book!

I realize that there are many occupations that require ’round-the-clock attention, but it’s time for all of us to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with the real world. When was the last time you engaged in the simple pleasure of taking a walk through a park on a summer evening? Or watching a sunset without the distraction of a ringing phone? How about inviting your friends to a barbecue in your back yard, where the only entertainment is tossing a Frisbee with the kids? When was the last time you enjoyed dinner in a nice restaurant without carrying on a cell phone conversation or checking to see how the market closed that day?

Hey, here’s a radical idea: disconnect for 24 hours! That means no web surfing, no emails, no Candy Crush, no Facebook posts, and no searching YouTube for the latest cute kitten videos. Think you can do it without a law telling you that it’s OK?


Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at



An email blackout law? Non, merci

America doesn’t need another work regulation

By Ron Kozar

We don’t need a law to tell us when we can or can’t use email. You already have the right to “unplug.” A mandatory email blackout would not give you a new right, but would take away an old one, namely the right to decide for yourself when and how to use email.

Protecting old rights against wrongheaded efforts to invent new ones has never been a big concern in the land of Robespierre, where this latest bad idea had its genesis.  The new workplace restriction the French are contemplating is far from clear.  “Companies with more than 50 employees,” the City Paper tells us, “would be obligated to set up hours (normally during the evening and weekend) when staff are not to send or respond to emails.”  I assume this concerns only the company e-address the employer assigns you when you’re hired and disables when you quit. I would not put anything past the French, but I doubt that the proposed law would obligate your boss to concern himself with what you do on your personal email account at Gmail or Yahoo.

Whatever it is, this latest nanny-state intrusion into the workplace falls into a well-worn pattern.  The joke is that liberals want to make everything they like mandatory and everything they dislike illegal. And now they evidently dislike email, at least when it’s from the boss.  So, they want a law. They always want a law.

But legislation is a blunt instrument whose ultimate authority always rests on men with guns. Legislators once understood this, and deployed that blunt instrument sparingly, only to suppress real perils to life and limb. In the workplace, that meant laws to regulate rotating knives on shop floors, asbestos dust in your lungs, or giant saws in lumbermills. It is hard to put the risk of too much email into the same category. The risk of getting your arm cut off is a serious one. The risk of getting an email from your boss at suppertime is not.

The email blackout is supposed to protect us from the peril of stress, but no one outside the NPR-listening wussosphere sees stress as a cause for legislation. The only sure way to suppress work-related stress is to suppress work itself—that is one thing we can count on laws like this one to do.

We say we want more jobs, but the suffocating dogpile of legislation we lay on employers has the opposite effect. Regulations already tell the boss the hours he can ask you to work, the health care benefits he must provide, the questions he can ask when he’s thinking of hiring you, the grounds for which he can fire you, and dozens of other details, large and small. You cannot override or opt out of these regulations by agreeing, for the sake of landing the job, to forego insurance or to work a few hours over 40 at your normal hourly rate. You don’t have a choice.  And if the rigidity of the regulatory straightjacket means the company just can’t afford to hire you, at least you can go back to the bed in your mom’s basement secure in the knowledge that those rules that kept you unemployed are for your own protection. Anyone who dares hire anyone else in this country walks a legal minefield. Every new regulation is another lawsuit waiting to explode into a mushroom cloud of liability. Every dollar an employer must give a lawyer to unravel the bewildering tangle of regulations is one less dollar with which to hire another worker, replace a truck, or retool a factory.

A mandatory email blackout would add another dog to the dogpile, another mine to the minefield. It would mean yet another item on the company’s lawyer’s to-do list. And to what effect? Prohibiting email speech might be pas grave in France, but that pesky First Amendment might get in the way over here. And what about other media? If the boss can’t contact you on your company email, can he send a message to your Hotmail account? Can he text you? Can he call you? And what about your coworkers?  Would the “right to unplug” extinguish their right to email you, and yours to email them?

Rather than sort out these details, consider a modest proposal: if you don’t want email after hours, turn off your cellphone. It will protect you from all the horrid stress that the French are biting their nails over, but it won’t require a single new sentence of legislation. And if your boss says you have to respond to midnight emails if you work for him, then say non, merci to the job he’s offering. But don’t prohibit the next fellow, who’s perfectly happy getting emails at home, from taking the job. See how that works?


Ron Kozar is a lawyer in Dayton. Reach him at


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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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