A new passel of labor laws enacted in France made news for one controversial, pro-labor provision. As of January, French companies with more than 50 employees must insure ensure the ability to disconnect after work. For at least 11 contiguous hours, workers must be able to unwind as they choose, free from job-related interruptions. Studies show the constant expectation that employees be on-call, even during their free time, damages their health. By preventing the need to answer emails, texts, and calls at all times, France shows that good rules save people from themselves.
People may enjoy their jobs, but do they really want to be permanently tethered to their duties? Getting home, having dinner, playing with the kids, and a good night’s sleep are the joys of life. Making it possible is why we go to work in the first place. All that is shot when the boss calls after hours. Workers may feel obligated to put up with the interruptions because that’s the cost of employment: if you don’t, the next person in line would, and with 10% unemployment, France is full of people who would be glad to have a job. Left unregulated, this conceivably leads to competition to be the most available, flexible worker by giving up our personal lives. It’s a recipe for misery.
Robert Frank addresses a similar problem in his book, The Darwin Economy, using hockey players as an example. Hockey’s a rough game; high-sticking incidents, fights, and errant pucks cause dangerous injuries, especially to unprotected eyes. Wearing a visor provides a margin of safety for players, but comes at the cost of a distorted or reduced field of view. If all players wear visors, they are equally handicapped, but all safer. If players are given a choice of whether or not to wear a visor, the player who opts out risks injury in exchange for a relative visual and mobility advantage. The rest of the players would likely feel pressured to abandon the visor in order to compete more effectively. Eventually, hockey would be played without visors, making the game more dangerous for everyone without giving any player a relative advantage over the others.
Especially among players who have witnessed horrific eye injuries or experienced injury themselves, visors are overwhelmingly popular. Negotiations between the NHL and the players’ union resulted in incoming NHL players being required to wear protective visors. Players understand that while they, themselves, would love to have a relative individual advantage over their peers, it’s more important for safety to require visors for everyone. Good rules save people from themselves by compelling them to obey safety standards (like wearing visors) instead of caving into pressure to behave in a way that advantages the individual but is detrimental for the whole group. As a side note, for those interested in playing hockey, this guide provides good information on training for the game, and playing safely.
All of which brings us back to no-longer-beleaguered French workers, and what other countries may learn from them. It may not be possible for those in high-responsibility positions to disconnect, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t. Pursuing relative advantage, whether it means 24/7 employee availability or playing without visors, ensures that eventually, nobody is protected
Because it’s so hard to resist the destructive pursuit of individual gain, we need standards in place that allow us the freedom to avoid going down that path. We can’t be trusted to restrain ourselves when we see others gaining advantages at our expense, but by agreeing together to be bound in ways that prevent that pursuit, we can live in a way that is better for almost everybody. Who wants to live in a world where we can’t tell work to go away when we’re not being paid for it? Good rules save people from themselves.