Imagine buying a super-sized, sugar-soaked tub of peanut butter ice cream and finding a message on the label that reads, “Ten Top Tips for Weight Loss.”
If you think tip one might be, “Give up peanut butter ice cream,” you’re not thinking like Apple boss Tim Cook.
Last week, Apple announced that its iPhones would soon have a “powerful tool” called Focus to better manage the blizzard of beeps and pings that can make both concentration and relaxation hopelessly difficult. Users can muzzle Twitter while busy at work or mute work emails on the weekend.
Or they could do something even more effective: turn off the distracting device right away or delete the apps that are drawing attention. Of course, Apple would rather you didn’t, as it makes money from both the App Store and iPhone sales. But you can see why it’s keen to look like it’s doing something to suppress the digital noise.
An exhausting, always-on work culture was a problem before the pandemic and has deteriorated significantly since then.
We’re in the midst of a “burnout epidemic,” according to Jennifer Moss, an American workplace expert who last year co-authored a survey of workers in 46 countries. Most said the work was getting worse, she wrote in the Harvard Business Review. As one respondent said, “Emails start at 5:30am and don’t finish until 10pm because they know you have nowhere else to go. It’s worse for single people without a family, because you can’t say, ‘I have to take care of my children’.’
Those words are supported by official UK statistics showing that people who worked from home averaged six hours of unpaid overtime a week last year, compared to 3.6 hours for those who never worked from home.
Given that working from home is there to stay after the lockdown, partly because many employees want it, that poses problems. Long work hours kill hundreds of thousands of people each year, a groundbreaking World Health Organization study said last month. Working more than 55 hours a week can be risky, it found.
No wonder governments around the world are facing increasing pressure to give workers something long considered a suspicious novelty – the right to disconnect.
This is spreading faster than one might think, and not just among docile, white-collar workers. Police in the Australian state of Victoria recently won the right to shut down after hours in what their workers association said was the first deal of its kind for a law enforcement agency. People were “tired of being on duty 24/7,” and needed a chance to rest and recover, the association said. Too many after-hours work messages were trivial or could easily wait.
Ireland introduced a code of conduct on the right to disconnect in April and Canada is considering a similar move, as are other countries.
This is good. Fears that such measures will stifle employers’ flexibility have been exaggerated. “It’s not about nine to five,” said Andrew Pakes, director of research at the UK’s Prospect Union, who is pushing for decoupling rights. “It doesn’t mean people will say, ‘It’s 5:02 PM, so I’m not going to answer that email’.” Nor does it mean that a blanket, a one-size-fits-all approach is needed. That has not happened in France, where for more than four years a law has been in force requiring companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate how best to shut down.
Employees at telecom company Orange in France are not required to answer work messages on weekends, days off or in the evenings – or while training, a spokeswoman said. At other companies, workers returning from vacation can spend an entire day making up for what they’ve missed without dealing with customers or internal meetings, said Alex Sireys, international sector head at the French trade union FO-Com.
Sireys says not all disconnect policies are perfect. “It depends on the will of the CEO,” he told me last week. Success also depends on employees and managers just talking to each other, he added, and taking advantage of le bon sense, or common sense. Anyway, the ability to disable was always very logical and never more so than now.