Germany To Consider Ban On Late-Night Work Emails

09/29/2014 07:29 am ET | Updated Sep 29, 2014
altrendo images via Getty Images

A decade ago, Antje Schmid would have left her office in Germany's financial hub of Frankfurt, gone out to drink a frothy pilsner or two with friends, and would have put her job out of mind until the next morning.

That was before smartphones. Today, the 25-year-old continues to get emails and calls from colleagues and bosses at the advertising agency long after she's clocked out.

"The interruptions increased," Schmid told The Huffington Post in an interview. "You are reachable always and everywhere."

But that might not last forever. Last month, German Labor Minister Andrea Nahles commissioned a study to assess the psychological and economic effects of work-related stress. The findings, slated to be released in 2016, are expected to generate legislation that would ban employers from contacting workers after office hours. Such a law, currently being pushed by the powerful multi-service trade union Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, or ver.di, now seems more likely to reach fruition since it gained Nahles' support.

"There is an undeniable relationship between constant availability and the increase of mental illness," Nahles told the Rheinische Post. "We have commissioned the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to work out whether it is possible to set load thresholds. We need universal and legally binding criteria."

Dominik Ehrentraut, a spokesman for the Labor Ministry, told HuffPost a law won't be formally proposed until the findings are released in 2016.

If passed, such a law could serve as a model for preserving workers' privacy and curbing the culture of being constantly on-call for work. Though some workers in France earlier this year adopted a so-called ban on emails after 6 p.m., the labor agreement was not cemented into law.

Some large companies, such as Daimler and Volkswagen, have already adopted rules to limit work-related stress. Last month, Daimler allowed about 100,000 workers to delete emails they received while on vacation. In 2011, Volkswagen agreed to stop its BlackBerry servers from sending emails after working hours.

But for many, work still seeps into the home life. Germany is often lampooned as the punctual, industrious workhorse of Europe. But when the country ratified its constitution in 1990, it preserved for its citizens the right to develop one's personality. And it's difficult to work on your character and hobbies when your professional life looms constantly in the background.

"That sort of self-development needs time," Thomas C. Kohler, a German legal expert and law professor at Boston College, told HuffPost, "and the idea that anybody could interrupt you on your own time to have you do work without a good excuse would be contrary to those sorts of attitudes."

Americans may often conflate staying late at the office with having a strong work ethic, but Germans see it as a sign of poor time management, Kohler said.

"With Germans, while they're at work, they only work -- you'll rarely hear a radio in the background," Kohler said. "They consider it a sign of inefficiency if you cannot complete a day's work in that day. So if you're staying late at the office, it would often be regarded as a sign of your inability to get the work done."

He said he expects the government in Berlin to pass legislation to curb off-hour emails and calls, but that drafting such a law to have a meaningful impact across a wide range of industries could be complicated. And then there are the challenges of enforcing it.

For Schmid, most of the after-hours emails she receives are from colleagues with whom she is working on group projects. She said legislation to free workers from the obligation to be always on-call would help rid her of the guilt she feels for not responding. But she doubts that a blanket rule could work.

"Maybe the government could help companies to make up unique rules for their firms, or put pressure on managers," she said.

If a law doesn't get enacted, Germany's famously powerful labor unions could push more companies to adopt standards as to when employees have to be available, said Stephen Silvia, an American University professor and expert in German industrial relations.

"There is a long tradition of the German labor movement carving out free time and pushing for working time reduction," he said.

He pointed out a famous poster from the 1950s, on which a grinning 5-year-old boy holds his hand up in the air, declaring: "On Saturdays, daddy belongs to me."

But as technology makes more Germans reachable around the clock, every hour is increasingly up for grabs.

CONVERSATIONS