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Why you can, and should, ignore that 9pm email from your boss

Analysis by Allison Morrow, CNN

New York (CNN) — Back in 2017, when France rolled it out the world’s first “right to disconnect” law — making it illegal for the boss to email workers after hours — Americans responded the way we always do when the French do something cool: Shake our heads at how soft they are while secretly wishing we could do the same thing. (See also: drinking wine at lunch, retiring at 62, national health care.)

Americans are tough, in so many ways. But when it comes to work, we can be downright tyrannical on ourselves and one another. Work is part of our identity here in a way that people from other countries find at turns fascinating and pathological.

We may be a little broken. But we are getting better. No, really! Hear me out …

  • This week, a California state lawmaker introduced one of those lefty “right to disconnect” bills that’s similar to what France created (and Australia, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and others have copied to varying degrees).
  • Lawmakers at the federal level are talking about 32-hour workweeks and they’re not getting laughed out of the room.
  • Millions of us are working from home at least part of the week, which is a fairly stunning acknowledgment of the toll commuting took on us before the pandemic upended office life.

There was a time not too long ago when the California legislation, introduced on Monday, April 1, might have been easily mistaken for an April Fool’s joke. It is no joke (though it is also highly unlikely to become law.)

The bill would aim to ensure that people aren’t pinged with work emails, texts or calls outside their established work hours, with notable exceptions for emergencies or scheduling issues.

“Work has changed drastically compared to what it was just 10 years ago,” said Matt Haney, the State Assembly member who introduced the bill, in a statement. “Workers shouldn’t be punished for not being available 24/7 if they’re not being paid for 24 hours of work.”

Under Haney’s bill, you and your boss would have to come to a written agreement defining work hours. If the boss intrudes on your non-work window three times, you can report them and the state could impose fines starting at $100.

Naturally, Silicon Valley startup types are already whingeing out about the Nanny State overreach that this bill represents.

Responding to a tweet about Haney’s bill, Mike Solana, a vice president at the VC firm Founders Fund, wrote on X: “california, in its ongoing effort to destroy itself, is once again trying to ban startups.”

Which like, OK — we can all agree it’s pretty silly that we’d need to put a law on the books to make people respect one another. But the reality is that smartphones have turned every work matter into a work emergency, and the pandemic blurred the line between work and home even more. No one likes pausing Succession to respond to a 9pm request, but the guilt of ignoring it and wondering whether your boss will be mad at you is also, like, not fun.

More than half (55%) of workers surveyed by Pew in 2023 said that they respond to work-related messages outside of their normal hours at least sometimes, with 28% saying they do so “extremely often or often.”

Being tethered to work at all hours is not only bad for workers’ health, it’s bad for business, Ashley Herd, the founder of Manager Method, tells me.

“A lot of executives and managers don’t realize how important it is for people to truly recharge,” Herd says. “Doing this isn’t just a nice fluffy thing — you will be a better business and get better results if you give people that level of separation.”

Of course, changing a work culture that thrives on being busy at all hours isn’t easy to change. That’s why the Haney bill matters, whether it passes or not.

In the mid-1800s, people typically worked 12-hour days, six days a week. It took decades of union-led labor efforts and legal challenges to get us to 1938, when FDR signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established that employers must pay overtime to employees working more than 40 hours a week.

“I do think, unfortunately, it would take a law to make a major shift,” in the right to disconnect issue, Herd says.

But in the meantime, workers have some powerful forces working in their favor. A historically tight labor market has given workers more leverage to negotiate their pay, hours and working conditions. And, of course, there’s now the ever-present threat of bosses’ bad behavior winding up in a viral social media post, as the “Get Laid Off With Me” TikTok trend makes clear.

Herd said she’s already seeing videos the last couple of days on social media, with comments about bosses calling or texting on Easter Sunday for non-emergency issues.

“My rule of thumb is, ‘if something would seem weird on social media, then maybe think twice, as an employer or manager, whether you want to do that,’” Herd said.

—CNN’s Jeanne Sahadi contributed reporting.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN-Opinion

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