Opinion: Could these laws fix America’s broken work culture?

Editor’s Note: Brigid Schulte is a journalist and author. Her newest book “Over Work: Transforming the Daily Grind in the Quest for a Better Life,” will be published by Holt in September. She serves as director of the Better Life Lab at New America. The views expressed in this article are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

New “right to disconnect” efforts in California and around the globe, to give workers the prerogative to ignore work messages after hours, are aimed at reducing the stress and burnout of our always-on and hyperconnected modern work culture.

But will they?

Brigid Schulte - Peter Heimberg
Brigid Schulte - Peter Heimberg

In an environment that has become increasingly demanding, technology has enabled late-night emails from the boss, texts and pings from co-workers at all hours, and made work ever-present in our lives. That techno overload, invasion into our personal time and constant connectivity leave the brain and body unable to disconnect and rest, leading to “technostress.”

Technostress is a very real and pervasive problem, Ashley Nixon, a professor of organizational behavior who specializes in technostress, told me. The expectation that the “ideal” workers will be always available for work at all hours comes at a high cost to human health, wellbeing and work productivity. And the presumption that front line, shift and retail workers must be “on call” or risk losing their jobs is a source of intense misery. We even think so much about work that researchers have dubbed the phenomenon “work-related rumination.”

Research shows that when the body never has a chance to rest and recover, levels of the stress hormone cortisol remain so high that the body begins to wear down, Nixon said. Work-related stress can disrupt sleep, digestion and cognition and leads over time to inflammation in the body and chronic illness like cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

We’re sicker and unhappier and, unsurprisingly, we don’t perform particularly well as our days turn into a slog of endless work.

“You do realize,” Nixon said, “that we’re having this conversation on the need to protect our non-work time on a Sunday.”

I had realized. And, with a heavy workload and crammed calendar, I made the choice to do it anyway. She had made a similar calculation. She had even chosen to check email on her recent vacation to save herself the stress of returning to a jampacked inbox.

That we both were fully aware of the negative consequences of the 24/7 work culture and yet were working on a day usually reserved for leisure and relaxation shows just how big the overwork problem is.

“Right to disconnect” laws are forcing us to confront the right questions: Why are we working all the time, or feel that we should be? Why does work-life balance feel so elusive? These are exactly the conversations we need to be having.

But right to disconnect laws, while a start, aren’t the only answers we need.

These laws began appearing in the 21st century as some workers, employers and policymakers saw how technology — ostensibly designed to make our lives easier — was, along with its benefits, creating toxic “constant connectivity.” Research found that even the thought that you might get a late-night email from the boss was the source of high anxiety, forcing the brain into a hyper-vigilant mode, unable to detach and rest.

In 2012 and 2014, respectively, Volkswagen and BMW in Germany banned after hours work communication: Company phone service turned off at the end of the day and was not reactivated until the following morning. Emails sent after official work hours were put on hold or deleted.

In 2017, France passed the first right to disconnect law. Other countries, including ItalyBelgiumSpainArgentinaCanada and others followed suit. Australia became the most recent country to pass such a law and last month, California Assemblyman Matt Haney proposed one for his state. The proposed law would require California employers to design and publish company-wide plans to require all employment contracts to clearly outline working and non-working hours. His goal, he said, is to promote work-life balance and “[cut] down on the stress and anxiety that inevitably comes with being available 24/7.”

He could have added, “and stop the practice of what we would otherwise call wage theft” — making ourselves available to work beyond our contracted hours without compensation.

Here’s what’s good about right to disconnect laws: They recognize that constant connectivity is an organizational problem, not an individual failing. Yes, the addictive nature of technology makes it difficult for people to log off — Nixon says we could all get better at what she calls “boundary management.” (Guilty.)

But a work culture that implicitly expects all-hours work devotion, and leaders who never take vacations or send late night and weekend communication, even if they say not to respond, makes it difficult for individuals to do anything other than conform. Otherwise, they could risk being seen as not committed, passed over for promotion or worse, let go.

Adia Harvey-Wingfield, a sociologist who studies race and work culture told me that right to disconnect laws are a step toward recognizing workers’ rights to their own time and independence, especially for workers who feel they can’t say no to employer demands without repercussion. “This is often the case for underrepresented workers due to their heightened visibility and stereotypes about their work ethic,” she wrote in a, yes, late-night email. “For these workers in particular, a law that establishes their right to maintain boundaries could be really beneficial.”

Organizational practices that respect peoples’ lives outside of work not only make workers happier and healthier, research shows, but make work more effective and equitable. Nixon said that disconnection and recovery time from work are related to less emotional exhaustion, improved sleep quality and engagement.

But here’s what doesn’t work: Most right to disconnect laws, including the California proposal, are typically aimed at “knowledge” workers — people who typically hold high-paying desk jobs in front of computers. The hourly, service and low-wage workers who, as of 2020, make up 44% of the workforce may appreciate not having to answer a text from the boss, but their real struggle is with low pay, too few hours, chaotic schedules and the expectation of unlimited availability. They often have no control over their time.

Right to disconnect laws don’t ensure stable schedules. They don’t require shorter work hours, which is a problem in the United States. Unlike in many other advanced countries, there is virtually no legal limit to the number of hours some salaried workers can work in the US, and no legally-guaranteed paid time off for any worker. (A 1938 law mandates overtime pay for hourly workers putting in more than 40 hours a week, though the Biden administration is seeking to extend overtime to salaried workers in non-supervisory positions earning about $58,600 a year or less.)

Nixon, Harvey-Wingfield and I had the choice to work and answer emails during non-work hours, and the flexibility and power to take our personal time back later. Most of these workers don’t have that option.

Giving workers across the board more choice and control should be at the heart of any attempt to redesign work. Most right to disconnect laws and policies give organizations and teams the flexibility to come up with their own plans, which is good.

But some designs are unworkable. Take, for instance, the California law. Companies are supposed to have a plan to protect workers’ time. To enforce it, though, overworked workers are supposed to report their bosses to the California Labor Commissioner. Yeah, right. We’ve all seen the massive rounds of lay-offs this year. With the threat of losing a job in the balance, workers may feel they have no choice but to keep silent and suck it up.

After three reports of overwork, the California proposal says companies could face fines of $100. That’s just silly. The proposed law has no “carrot” to reward exemplary companies, and $100 is hardly the “stick” to goad companies to change.

In an increasingly tech-infused work culture, right to disconnect standards can be difficult to set. When teams are global, and when more workers have flexible schedules, particularly since the pandemic, and can set their own hours and “time shift,” just what are “normal” working hours anymore?

2023 study of right to disconnect laws published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review found mixed results. Because governments don’t intervene in how organizational policies are written, and don’t enforce them, whether they work depends very much on the will of individual employers. “In their current form, disconnection laws are unable to generate significant change in practice on a large scale,” the study authors wrote.

So, what will?

Yes, we workers need to learn to set better boundaries with our technology.

But we also need good jobs that support employees with living wages, reasonable hours and schedule control. We need the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate work stress, the way EU OSHA does, and go after companies that demand long, inflexible work hours that extend into private time — what economist Claudia Goldin has dubbed “greedy work.”

We need visionary leaders who create positive work cultures that promote human well-being, rest, disconnection and effective work. We need them to think beyond the narrow horizon of next quarter’s profits.

We need fewer layoffs and better strategies than the “lean efficiency” that leaves too few overloaded workers to do too much. We need laws that give workers more say and power and enable them to organize to demand better.

And we need to join other advanced nations, finally, and pass public policies that support the humanity of workers, like paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave, paid vacation and investment in a robust care. We need a functioning unemployment system and safety net that can bounce someone to the next, better thing.

Turning off work shouldn’t be the brazen act of resistance or existential threat it’s become. We need work to help furnish us with our daily bread and sense of purpose. But we also need to reclaim our time for leisure and the joy of simply being alive. Fewer emails would also be nice.

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