Burned out by 24/7 Work Emails? France Has a Solution.

The average worker sends and receives over 120 emails every day, and many employees are stressed from late night and weekend work emails. France recently created a "Right to Disconnect" from the neverending emails. Will it work?



Something has to give.

Despite numerous predictions over the years that email would no longer be prevalent in our modern workplace, its frequency and ubiquity show little sign of death. According to a recent report on email statistics by the Silicon Valley research firm The Radicati Group, the average worker sent and received 122 emails a day in 2015. That number is expected to grow to 125 by the year 2019.

The accessibility of our work email has completely blurred the lines between work and leisure. When does the workday end if you are still responding to work emails? In fact, the problem of incessant emails after work hours and on the weekend has become so heightened that France recently recognized a workers' "right to disconnect" from office emails.

Right to Disconnect

As part of sweeping new labor laws in France for 2017, French workers now have le droit de la déconnexion--the right to disconnect from work emails during non-work hours. The rule requires that companies with over 50 employees must negotiate an email policy regarding time off from checking and sending emails. While it does not directly ban after-hour emailing, it aims to promote a workplace conversation and agreement towards a more sustainable email policy.

According to the French Labor Code, Article L2242-8:

“The establishment by the company of regulations for the use of digital tools, in order to ensure the respect of rest time and vacation, as well as personal and family time.”

The Right to Disconnect's focus on rest time derives from the European Union’s Working Time Directive, which requires a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours in every 24 hours. It is a recognition that the modern worker may be lacking adequate time in between the end of a workday and the start of the next. There is little time to recharge if you are always connected. Some of the recommendations related to the Right to Disconnect include educating employees about the impact of always being on, and a suggestion of email-free days.

An Electronic Leash?

Speaking to the BBC about why a Right to Disconnect may be necessary, parliament member Benoit Hamon stated:

"All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant. Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash - like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails - they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down." 

In 2012, the US Army and the National Science Foundation funded a study that looked into the stress levels of always being connected with email. Carried out by researchers at UC Irvine and the US Army, "A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons," found that being "cut off from work email significantly reduces stress and allows employees to focus far better." By hooking participants to heart rate monitors, the researchers found that those frequently checking emails went into a high alert state (related to higher cortisol levels), while those taking a break for five days had more natural heart rates.

Co-author of the study, UC Irvine informatics professor Gloria Mark, said that "participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK."

Therein Lies the Rub of Email Overload

One of the reasons that creating a healthy workplace email environment has been so vexing is because there are both internal and external motivations to being constantly connected.

Workers that desire time away from office emails may feel pressure from higher ups that are setting a tone of always being on. In addition, without an adequate email policy to handle employee vacation email, workers may feel that disconnecting is merely letting emails add up. Lastly, employees may feel a sense of being left out--Worker FOMO. Being constantly connected through work email keeps this anxiety at bay.

It is certainly not as if companies haven't been trying to solve this conundrum. In 2011, Volkswagen agreed to stop sending workers emails after their shifts had ended, in an effort to better draw the lines between on-the-job and off-the-job. Vynamic, a healthcare consultancy company, created a "zzzMail" policy of no work emails on the weekend, and no emailing between 10 PM and 6 AM. 

Is the Right to Disconnect the Solution?

"I think it opens up the conversation about the need to connect consciously, and bigger impacts on psychological wellbeing--impacts on cortisol levels, burnout, etcetera," says Australian researcher and psychologist Jocelyn Brewer. Brewer is the creator of Digital Nutrition, a framework for developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with technology. 

It may be less a discussion about working shifts and more about a paradigm shift.


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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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