It is possible the United States may soon see a day where American employers must pay their employees for the time put into responding to late-night e-mails. The Department of Labor in August proposed a “request for information” to study the use of electronics by employees for work purposes outside of work hours. There is speculation that this is a sign the United States may be following a recent pattern in Europe, which is pressing for bans against work e-mails after work hours.
In France, for example, a massive labor contract was signed between employers and unions to prevent contacting employees at night after work, and on days off in some cases. Germany already has laws banning employers from making contact with employees on vacation, but proposed “anti-stress” legislation calls for this ban to cover employees who have already clocked out of their work shift for the day. Volkswagen, a German company, helped lead this movement in 2011 by banning work e-mails before or after many of its employees’ shifts.
If any new legislation were to emerge from our own government, it would be unlikely to establish bans on communication. Instead, it is possible that compelled work communications would count towards wages and overtime. Because President Obama has recently announced plans to raise the minimum salary threshold to qualify for mandated overtime, many American workers may potentially see a rule that allows their work done at home to count as overtime.
The Department of Labor’s recent plan to request information on work performed after hours was partially in response to a case filed by the Chicago police officers against the City. The officers were required to spend as much as 12 hours per month making phone calls for the Police Department outside of work hours in addition to a requirement to respond to e-mails from home. The case is currently on trial in federal district court, and the results of the bench trial are expected in the upcoming weeks.
Despite any new rules that may or may not emerge, employers should be aware of the damage that after-work communications can cause to their employees, and perhaps limit the communications that managers send outside of work hours. Studies have shown that employees who receive e-mails or other communications at night or on weekends feel compelled to respond immediately and it contributes to stress and anxiety. When these e-mails become a pattern, employees feel like they are on call and are reluctant to make weekend plans with their families.
Other studies indicate that employees need regular time periods to be completely disconnected from work. These temporary disconnections are necessary to boost creativity and create fresh insights and perspectives when the employee returns to work. Creating a never-ending link between an employee’s personal life and his or her job has a detrimental impact on the employee’s overall productivity.
Sending e-mails at night could also be disruptive. In certain work environments, where workers are constantly competing with their colleagues for an edge to be first in line for a raise or promotion, employees who are not required to respond to e-mails at night feel compelled to do so anyway. Employees who receive work e-mails while at dinner or while they are sleeping have a sense a duty to give their personal devices priority over regular daily activities.
Before sending out that night-time e-mail, employers should practice balancing the company and client needs with the benefits of disconnecting work from an employee’s personal life. If the e-mail can wait until morning, it is usually best to save it for the next day.