Is It Time the US Outlawed After-Hours Work Email?

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Smartphones: convenient personal tools, or stress-inducers that handcuff us to our jobs? Some could argue for both sides, although the latter may not be long-lived. In the future, we may be able to pore over our smartphones all day long – from the wee morning into the late night – yet be free from work-related stress when we’re out of the office. How, you’re asking, could it be possible?

Consider a world where after-hours work emails are banned. Such a deal has already been enacted in France and proposed in Germany. Germany’s labor minister is putting forth a law, similar to the encouraged practice in France, which would prohibit employers from sending work-related emails after established work hours. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not yet on board with the legislation, it does provide food for thought: Is it time the US, like these European nations, acknowledges the negative impacts of after-hours work emails? Could we actually outlaw this type of correspondence?

The immediate reaction is an enthusiastic Yes! – ban the headaches, the buzzes that interrupt family dinners, evening walks, and rigorous workouts. Let life outside of work be just that: life outside of work.

It’s certainly true that late-night emails from the boss can be annoying. They also, more importantly, cause loads of stress; a study from UC Irvine and the U.S. Army found that removing work email lowers stress in employees.

Stress is definitely one of the main issues at hand. Overworking brings stress, and overworking is definitely something all too many Americans are guilty of. In fact, employees in the US work an average of 47 hours a week: that’s 12 more hours than the German average. About 18% of full-time employees in the US reported working more than 60 hours most weeks. At the same time, Germany requires all employees have access to four weeks of vacation. The United States, unfortunately, cannot say the same.

It seems workers in the US need to check their work-life balance. One really has to ask: do Americans work to live or live to work?

Not only does working longer hours (and maintaining a constant connection to one’s job) hurt workers’ health and stress levels, but it also negatively affects productivity. Numerous countries in Europe have experimented with shorter workdays, eliminating after-work emails, giving more vacation days, and promoting healthy work environments in other ways. What they’ve found, unsurprisingly, is that when you cut back the time people are sitting at their desks or staring at their computers, productivity increased and workers were happier. If people in the US could claim their after-work hours for themselves, relaxing rather than fearing emails from The Boss, it could be reflected in boosted productivity and overall employee satisfaction.

So, as it turns out, this apparent knee-jerk reaction may actually be backed by sound scientific reasoning.

Unfortunately, enforcing a ban on work-related emails would be difficult, to say the least. However, encouraging businesses to loosen up and respect their workers’ private lives wouldn’t be a bad idea. If employers can stop thinking of late-night emails as the norm, workers in the US would be less stressed during their hours off and more productive during the day. What boss is going to ignore a potential productivity boost?

By now you’re probably thinking something like this: Can’t we just turn off notifications on our phone? Or train ourselves to ignore it entirely after we leave the office? That might work for some, but for others the lack of communication on their part might not be well received by company leadership. Placing the government between a company and its employees might be distasteful to some, but it might be the best option open to us if we want to reclaim a portion of our private lives.

As you can probably guess, though, the likelihood that such a rule will go into effect in the United States – especially anytime soon – doesn’t look so good. It’s certainly no secret that Americans are the most overworked workers in the world, but changing that will be tough. With France and perhaps Germany, along with other European nations paving the way, the US may have a chance to eventually turn things around. I’d bemoan the fact that the United States no longer leads by example, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Until then, we’ll have to suck it up, deal with a meager two-week vacation, suffer through 50-hour work weeks and, unfortunately, continue to receive boss-driven chain emails at 11 pm.

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