We should pull the plug on pointless after-hours emails

Imagine buying a supersized, sugar-soaked tub of peanut butter ice-cream and finding a message on the label headed: “Ten top tips to lose weight.”

If you think tip one could well be, “Give up peanut butter ice-cream”, then you do not think like Tim Cook, the boss of Apple.

Last week, Apple announced its iPhones would soon have a “powerful tool” called Focus to better manage the blizzard of bleeps and pings that can make both concentration and relaxation hopelessly hard. Users will be able to muzzle Twitter if busy at work or mute work emails on the weekend.

Or they could do something even more effective: turn the distracting device right off or delete its attention-sapping apps. Apple would of course prefer you did neither, since it makes money from both its App store and from selling iPhones. But you can see why it is keen to look as if it is doing something to quell the digital din.

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A draining, always-on work culture was a problem before the pandemic and has worsened considerably since.

We are in the middle of a “burnout epidemic”, according to Jennifer Moss, a US workplace expert who co-authored a survey of workers in 46 countries last year. Most said work was getting worse, she wrote in the Harvard Business Review. As one respondent said: “Emails start at 5:30am and don’t end until 10pm, because they know you have nowhere else to go. For single people with no families it’s worse, because you don’t get to say, ‘I need to go take care of my kids’.”

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Those words are backed up by official statistics in the UK showing people working from home last year put in six hours of unpaid overtime a week on average, compared with 3.6 hours for those who never worked at home.

Considering homeworking is here to stay post-lockdowns, in part because many employees want it, that spells trouble. Long working hours kill hundreds of thousands of people a year, a groundbreaking World Health Organization study said last month. More than 55 hours work a week can be risky, it found.

No wonder governments around the world are facing rising pressure to give workers something long considered a suspect novelty — the right to disconnect.

This is spreading faster than one might think, and not just in docile, white collar workforces. Police in the Australian state of Victoria recently won the right to switch off after hours in what their employee association said was the first deal of its kind for a law enforcement agency. People were “sick of feeling like they’re on duty 24/7”, and needed a chance to rest and recover, the association said. Too many after-hours work messages were trivial or could easily wait.

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Ireland brought in a code of conduct on the right to disconnect in April and Canada is looking at a similar move, as are other nations. 

This is good. Fears that such measures will stifle employers’ flexibility are exaggerated. “It’s not about nine-to-fiveism,” says Andrew Pakes, research director at the UK’s Prospect union, which is pushing for disconnection rights. “It doesn’t mean people will say, ‘It’s 5.02pm so I’m not going to answer that email’.” Nor does it mean a blanket, one-size-fits all approach is needed. That’s not what happened in France, where a law requiring companies with more than 50 staff to negotiate agreements on how best to switch off has been in place for more than four years.

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Workers at the Orange telecoms company in France do not have to answer work messages on the weekend, days off or evenings — or when doing training, a spokeswoman said. At other companies, workers returning from vacation can spend a full day catching up on what they missed without having to deal with clients or internal meetings, said Alex Sirieys, international sector head at France’s FO-Com trade union.

Sirieys says not all disconnect policies are perfect. “It depends on the will of the CEO,” he told me last week. Success also relies on workers and managers simply talking to each other, he added, and using le bon sens, or common sense. Either way, the ability to switch off always made a lot of sense and never more so than it does right now.

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Twitter: @pilitaclark

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