briefcase, brain and electrical outlet, with an electrical cord connecting all three to convey people always being plugged into work. the image is colorful, in hues of yellow, blue and green, with a slightly grainy texture look to it.
Terran Kim for DAME, Adobe

Work Culture

Photo by Terran Kim for DAME, Adobe

Why Can’t American Workers Just Relax?


More and more countries around the world are giving their citizens the "right to disconnect" from work. Will the workaholic U.S. be left behind?



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Alarmed by the toll of increasingly nonexistent boundaries between work and home during the pandemic, a growing number of nations want to help their citizens unplug when they’re done with work. In the last few months, several governments, including Canada, the E.U., Ireland, and even Japan—which invented the word karoshi, for death by overwork—announced they’re considering “right to disconnect” laws. Similar laws are already on the books in Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Ireland, Italy, the Philippines, and Spain.

“Virtually all of our employment laws in the U.K., probably most places in the world, came out of the last century, which was about protecting people from physical harm and industrial accidents,” says Andrew Pakes, director of communication and research at the Prospect Union, which represents workers in sectors in science, engineering, technology, and film and TV production, and is advocating for a right to disconnect amendment in an upcoming U.K. employment bill. “That’s part of what the right to disconnect is. How do we take that principle of managing risks and protecting people from harm in a physical work environment into more of a digital work environment?”

Responding to emails late into the evening may seem trivial next to the risks of working in an industrial-era factory. But workplace stress is tied to significant increases in physical health problems, like heart attack and diabetes; habits like cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor diet; and mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and burnout. An “always on” style of work, where employees are expected to stay connected around the clock is particularly taxing, studies find. Stress levels increase to a “high alert” state when reading work email. Heavy workloads and low autonomy are strongly connected with depression and earlier death. Even the expectation of needing to check work email after hours is linked to chronic stress.

In a year of remote work and lockdowns, workers report heavy workloads, staying glued to email and team chat tools like Slack to prove their commitment to work—in some cases monitored by surveillance software and the expectation to be always available. This has led to more after-hours emails, workdays that are nearly two to three hour longer, and even “workcations.” The situation has put working parents, especially moms, at a particular disadvantage as they’ve struggled to balance work and parenting. Around 3 million women have left their jobs altogether in the last year.

What has been called an “epidemic of overwork” in the U.S. has long preceded the pandemic. By the early 2000s, Americans worked on average about five weeks more per year than in the 1970s, according to sociologist Juliet Schor, who is the author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, and 50 percent more than the Germans and the French, who are at least as productive. Unlike almost every other nation in the world, we have no guaranteed vacation time.

While President Joe Biden’s is the most pro-labor U.S. administration in decades, so far it has not addressed a “right to disconnect,” or any policy responses that address the increasing encroachment of work into all other aspects of life, such as experimenting with a four-day workweek, paid parental leave, or strengthening overtime-pay laws. Regulation that gives workers control of our time, like the right to disconnect, would push back on an always-on work culture at a time when it threatens to become an even more insidious part of our lives—and it could be easier than anyone realizes.

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The right to disconnect was pioneered in France in 2017, responding to what then–Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri called the increasingly “tenuous” boundary between professional and personal life. Under the law, an organization must either negotiate a policy with employees that allows them to disconnect from work technology after hours or it must outline one. Other plans similarly defer to companies and unions the task of defining what a right to disconnect looks like.

“We’re not calling for hard and fast rules which limit work to 9-to-5 in the way this is sometimes portrayed. What we are calling for is a set of rules that enable workers and managers to set what’s right for their company and their different roles within it,” says Pakes.

In the U.S., the only proposed “right-to-disconnect” bill, put forward in New York City, got significant pushback from a collection of business interests as both unnecessary and onerous.

“I believe that these conversations about work-life balance go on within organizations who are desperately trying to make sure that their people are happy,” Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which advocates for businesses, testified in opposition to the bill at a January 2019 hearing. “Most of this communication is voluntary,” she added.

Echoing what many of us are likely thinking, Councilmember Brad Lander responded: “I don’t think most employer-employee communication is perceived as voluntary by the employees.”

Today, former City Councilmember Rafael Espinal, the bill’s sponsor and now president of the Freelancers Union, says, “I do believe that the pandemic has highlighted the need for this as people are now working around the clock with no boundaries because they’re home.” But he suspects the Council won’t hold a vote on the bill because of the opposition from the business community.

The idea that most communication is voluntary disregards employees’ power disadvantage in the U.S., says Paul Secunda, an employment attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “If you want to keep your job in an at-will world, you do what the employer wants, and if you don’t they can fire you for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all,” he says, referring to the fact that it is legal to fire employees without warning if the reason doesn’t violate the law. “The power dynamic is such that employees need the government to intervene to protect them, because if they don’t, most employees see the writing on the wall.”

However, a bruising legislative battle may not be necessary. Secunda says that a right to disconnect could be added to existing law without the need to go through Congress. On account of the physical and mental health toll of constant connection, it could be regulated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state occupational health agencies, he writes in two law review articles. “There are certain things an employer cannot do because it’s against the safety and health of the employees,” he explains. 

*** 

Americans are often cast as eager workers compared to our vacation-loving European counterparts. But history tells a different story. Between 1830 and 1930, what Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, professor of history at University of Iowa, calls “the Century of Shorter Hours,” the American labor movement pushed the standard workweek down from as much as 100 hours to 60 and eventually 40. Businesses, including most famously Ford Motors, started granting workers an eight-hour day; Kellogg’s even moved down to six-hour shifts. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 officially normalized the eight-hour day by requiring overtime pay for working over 40 hours a week.

In that era, a life beyond work was a central aspiration, according to Hunnicutt, author of Free Time, the Forgotten American Dream. In 1910, from the vacation town of Bar Harbor, Maine, President William Howard Taft said all Americans deserved three months of vacation. (Even if fanciful then, such a declaration is inconceivable from an American president today.) A 1930s national campaign boasted that the U.S. had the shortest work hours in the world. At this time, British economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that technology would increase productivity enough that future generations would enjoy a 15-hour work week. Until the 1970s, Americans worked less than Europeans, according to various studies.

“Together with that real development [of winning shorter work hours] was the expectation of humane and moral progress… where we would get to the point where we would have enough material goods to satisfy us, and we would naturally begin to investigate our humanity and live our lives outside of getting and spending,” Hunnicutt says. “No one expected the movement to stop.”

However, mass job loss during the Great Depression shifted the labor movement to focus on full employment. Union membership reached its peak in 1954, and the decline in the following decades was hastened by union-busting campaigns, anti-union laws, and internal corruption. Tax cuts incentivized affluent Americans to value earning over leisure. At the same time, pay stagnation for wage workers, along with inflation in health, education, and housing costs, meant they had to put in more hours to keep up their standard of living. (This was when the U.S. started to diverge from France, where organized labor pushed for work sharing during the 1970s economic downturn, which enabled them to secure more vacation time.) As religious affiliation declined, some Americans turned to work for more meaning. “Instead of being a means to an end, it increasingly became an end in itself,” says Hunnicutt. As the workforce became more diverse, some male managers even began to criticize short work hours in feminized and racialized terms. Finally, digital technology made it possible to work around the clock, just as industrial technology had sped up the workday two centuries earlier.

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The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, a nonprofit that advocates for safe work conditions in the U.S., supported the New York City right-to-disconnect bill in 2019 as part of a broader fight to win workers back control of their time, including “the right to say ‘no’ to hours beyond a 40-hour workweek” and to have parenting recognized as work.

“A lot of labor advocacy has been focused on raising wages, but we think that [if we focus] only on raising wages without paying attention to working hours, we get collectively poorer,” said Yolanda Zhang, an organizer with NMASS, which represents workers across sectors.

The conversation around hours tends to focus on overworked white-collar professionals, says Jamie McCallum, sociologist and author of Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream. In recent decades, low-wage workers have wanted to work more because they “simply can’t afford to work less.”

But several movements show control of work hours is a growing issue. NMASS is part of the Ain’t I a Woman?! campaign, which is pushing for passage of a bill in New York State that would end the practice of 24-hour work shifts for home health aides, who are mostly women, immigrants, and workers of color, of which they are only paid for 13 hours.

“Fair workweek” bills, like one passed in Philadelphia, seek to regulate the use of “predictive scheduling” software, which uses algorithms to assign shifts to workers in industries like retail and food service only days in advance and sends them home when customer volume decreases.

“It’s only predictive from the employers’ standpoint,” McCallum said at a recent event called “Labor’s Forgotten Fight: Reclaiming Control of Our Time” hosted by Peter Kwong Immigrant Workers Learning Center. “When workers had the opportunity to choose to work less, they absolutely took it,” he added.

These movements speak to the role of labor organizing, which is starting to rise after years of decline, particularly among white-collar workers who historically had weak participation.

“Collective bargaining is the best means to secure rights on anything, particularly on a right to disconnect,” says Alke Boessiger, deputy general secretary of the Uni Global Union, which represents unions in sectors including banking and insurance, IT and telecoms, private care, retail workers, media entertainment workers, printers, graphic designers, and postal work.

Boessiger acknowledges the challenge for American workers, most of whom don’t belong to a union. “I would count the U.S. as a developing country in terms of workers’ rights,” she says, citing anti-union policies in some states, particularly in the South. “The PRO [Protecting the Right to Organize] Act is a great step in the right direction,” she adds, referring to the bill passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year, and up for a vote in the Senate, which would strengthen union organizing ability.

She encourages workers who are stressed by always-on culture but aren’t organized to talk to their colleagues about the problem, so they feel less isolated. “When you talk to others, you realize: We’re all in the same boat we’re all feeling like that fatigue, that tiredness, that lack of socializing, and so on.” Then she suggests approaching an employer with a list of concerns.

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In France, companies’ right-to-disconnect policies have included blocking computer servers on evenings and weekends, pop-up reminders to respect colleagues’ disconnection time, email signature messages that advise the recipient they don’t have to respond immediately, and encouragement that employees report abusive situations. But some experts point to weak enforcement, and in the year after the law was passed, workers at some organization said they hadn’t seen a change. A survey of 34,000 workers by French unions during the pandemic found 78 percent worked for companies that they believed were not respecting their right to disconnect.

I worked in France as an English teaching assistant from 2018 to 2019. In my experience, and from what I’ve heard and read from others, American stereotypes that idealize France as a workers’ paradise, or mischaracterize French workers as lazy, miss the mark. People work hard and often put in long hours at work. What did feel different is that work doesn’t have as strong a claim on people’s time when they aren’t there. Though I received the occasional email from a teacher after work hours, I didn’t feel I was expected to respond when I wasn’t working. On evenings, weekends, and vacations, it felt like the French were genuinely off.

I came to appreciate that when limits are set on what a job can demand, we gain freedom in other areas of life. In France, as once in the U.S., the government and labor organizing helps set these boundaries. Absent regulation or organizing, the most we can hope for is an employer who recognizes their employees’ well-being also benefits them.

Boundaries around time also create a more equal playing field at work. For instance, Uni Union negotiated a right-to-disconnect agreement with telecom company Orange Africa that sets a time after which employees aren’t expected to respond. This benefits working moms, who are often the more-involved parent in a couple. “You’re disconnecting this tendency of particularly men in my experience to work all hours because they want to progress and see that as a demonstration of their commitment,” Boessinger says.

Even without regulation, U.S. organizations could create similar policies. Germany is a strong example of a nation where organizations have taken the lead, like auto companies Volkswagen, which freezes email servers after work hours, or Daimler, which deletes emails sent to employees on leave. A few American companies have recently announced policies that dial back always-on culture, such as accounting giant PwC’s plan to let staff start and stop work when they want, and Buffer’s four-day workweek. But it could be a long time before most workers get such privileges.

If we don’t do anything, what we’ve hated most about pandemic work could become permanent—not just always-on communication but the use of employee surveillance software or offloading home office costs like internet bills and computers onto employees.

“There’s this risk that in the shadow of COVID technology, we’re going to sleepwalk into the next era of the data-fication of workers, with tech trapping us in a poor work culture,” says Pakes. In this transitionary period, we have an opportunity, he says, to work on “a shared contract about, ‘What does good work look like in the future?’”

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