I grabbed drinks with some friends in Manhattan yesterday and we all had our phones on the table the whole time (mine was face down, okay). Over the course of the evening, I would say at least two of the four people checked or answered work emails, and one person left early to get on a phone call.
Rafael Espinal wants us to stop. The New York City councilman released a “Right to Disconnect” bill on Thursday, advocating for the rights of employees to stop answering work-related emails and other digital messages, like texts, after official work hours. “Our work lives have spilled into our personal lives because of technology,” he told me. “It’s time we unblur and strike a clear line.”
Brooklyn-based Espinal said he got the idea from France, where a bill passed early last year by the Ministry of Labor requires companies of over 50 employees to define out-of-office email rules. He wanted to create a similar guideline so that workers would not be penalized for disconnecting after work hours. But that’s France—known for joie de vivre—and this is New York, known for not sleeping.
Answering work emails after work hours, or during weekends, or on vacation, has become par for the course here, and across the US. Statistics rarely account for the extra hours spent managing post-office work—by most official counts, Americans work the same number of hours—around 39 to 47 per week—just as we did in the 1950s. But those of us living it know this isn’t true: technology has completely changed the way we work, and burnout is rampant among American workers.
“It manifests as anxiety, depression, feeling demoralized and hopeless,” said Dr. Jabari Jones, a psychiatrist with Maimonedes Medical Center in New York. He said the inability for people to stop working when they leave work can leave them without fulfilling relationships, rest and hobbies. And that’s especially typical in New York’s workaholic culture.
But Jones isn’t sure a bill can change American work culture, especially since managers could still promote or reward workers who put in the extra hours, laws or not, and build resentment toward those who choose to disconnect. And it doesn’t help that our definition of work keeps changing—jobs no longer fit in the nine-to-five workday, and the gig economy continues to employ more part-time workers.
Mark Muro, a Brookings Institute labor and technology researcher, pointed out that most jobs, even the seemingly manual ones, have become digitized, putting technology and its 24-hour capacity at the center of a lot of our work. “It’s a reflection of the incredible flux and ambiguity of the digital period that one would need legislation like this,” he said. “Because the technologies do have some built in features, and one of them is ‘always on’.”
This ubiquitous digitization also comes at a time when there is less government oversight into the workplace that we’ve historically seen, Muro said. And following in the footsteps of a country like France would also require a big shift in the way American companies interact with the government.
Technologies do have some built in features, and one of them is ‘always on’.
If Espinal were able to implement the bill, it would face similar challenges to its European counterparts. Critics say the legislation in France has no teeth, and companies are still allowed to define their own guidelines, leaving room for exploitation. And the New York version of the “Right to Disconnect” bill includes exemptions for jobs that require 24-hour on-call periods.
One thing is clear, the American worker will require a shift in our relationship to technology if we want a chance at balancing our lives better, and not falling prey to a vicious cycle of insomnia, disillusionment, and notification hell. Even outside of our wellbeing, it’s this same tendency to work around the clock that will end up axing our productivity in the long run.
“It’s a law of diminishing returns,” Jones said. “It’s about emotional balance, boundaries and the power dynamic.”
Meanwhile, Espinal said he will be holding public forums before the summer for advocates and critics of the bill to give their input.