France instituted a new labour law this year which included a provision that asks companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate with their staff to establish times when the employees may digitally disconnect from the office. There are no penalties for companies that don’t establish a code of conduct around email use but the law is meant to, theoretically, empower employees to turn off their work email when they’re away from work. As French MP, Benoit Hamon, astutely observed to the BBC, employees “remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
I love to describe compulsive reactions as turning us into dogs chasing after sticks our brains throw at us, but it’s our brains, not our phones, or our email accounts, or our managers that turn us into dogs. In the French law we can see a very old perspective on addiction: that it’s the thing that somehow magically turns you into an addict. This was one of the reasons that mental health and addictions were and, in many cases, still are separated within the healthcare establishment–because mental illness came from the brain but addiction was supposed to come from an external thing. So we assumed that if we could cut off the thing, then the problem would go away. But it doesn’t actually work like that.
Our problems with how we use the internet and act compulsively online are much broader than how we interact with the office after-hours. Many people spend much of their day at the office on social media. When will our leaders grant us the right to disconnect during the day from our social media accounts? Or, given research like this, and this, which suggests that using electronics before bed impairs sleep, perhaps we’ll get a law allowing people to turn off their electronics before bed time. If only there was a law granting you the right to not watch two hours of porn online every morning, then you could finally stop! If Anthony Weiner had spent his time in office enacting legislation to give people the right not to send unsolicited pictures of their junk online, he’d still have a job and the world wouldn’t be inches away from a Trump presidency. And when will countries begin to ban the “like” button so you won’t attach your self-esteem to it?
You already have the power to spend your time and energy the way you want to in life. Use that power.
It’s unlikely the French law will have any impact on how much time people spend online but perhaps it will spark some conversations about how people use their time and energy and why they use it that way. Those are conversations we need to have at the office and in our personal lives.