Save us from the office that follows you home

Screw you and your chirpy bloody exclamation mark

There is a certain kind of person for whom the phrase “work-life balance” is meaningless, because work is life, and life is work. The body may be home with the dog and the Great British Bake Off, but the mind is still a whirr of stock options and invoices and client meetings; the clock may have ticked past five, but the working day is never over. These people are the beating heart and thrumming lifeblood of any office;  they are the people who keep moving because if they don’t keep moving they die, like a great white shark, or a clown on a giant unicycle.

Those people must have rejoiced when the mobile telephone, that clunkily one-note communication tool of yesteryear, that glorified tin-can-on-a-string, mutated and evolved into the all-singing, all-dancing multipurpose supercomputer that we all stash in our pockets and dismiss with the name “smartphone”. Suddenly, every incoming message could buzz satisfyingly and instantaneously on the hip; responses could be drafted and sent without having to do anything so time-consuming as switch on a laptop. Truly, those people were plugged in, forever connected to the world of work; for them, there could be no greater joy.

I am not one of those people. Those people are awful people.

Not everyone agrees with me about that. There is a dark god, Productivity, to whom economists, employers and politicians  pray; the baleful smartphone and its chirruping You Have Mail call, these warrior-priests say, increases Productivity, glory be His mighty name. Hours previously wasted going to the park, having fun, seeing your children, eating in restaurants, drinking single malt, staring raptly into your lover’s eyes and so on can now be spent replying to the Deputy Chief Vice-President of Overseas Sales about the annual net usage statistics. And thus the great wheel of the economy turns, greased with the sweat of the worker, just as it should be. All hail Productivity.

In Germany, though, they appear to be coming around much faster to my way of thinking. The country’s employment minister, a wise and far-sighted woman called Andrea Nahles, has proposed an “anti-stress law” which would make it illegal for bosses to email staff outside working hours. It’s already illegal, in this enlightened Teutonic wonderland, to expect staff to respond to emails while on holiday, but the great Frau Nahles wants to push further, to protect more German lives from the all-consuming ping of the in-box.

She has a point. Workplace stress is an acknowledged cause of mental illness, especially anxiety and depression. I don’t know whether she’s right that there is an “undeniable relationship between having to be constantly available and the rise in mental illness” – the most obvious cause for the rise in mental illness is probably the improvement in how we diagnose it – but it wouldn’t surprise me if workplace stress is made worse by the fact that the workplace, nowadays, follows you home.

The relationship between working hours and productivity – and the modern smartphone world – is complicated. According to The Economist, Germany has one of the most productive workforces in the world – and, as it happens, some of the shortest working hours. There is a similar story throughout the West – the countries that work smartest work shortest. Greek workers have some of the longest hours in Europe, but do the least with them. And despite the rise of the always-in-touch world, we work, on average, fewer hours than we did in 1990. But spending less time in the office is less meaningful if, when you’re out of the office, you’re still expected to check your emails every half an hour – hence Nahles’s point that time off should be time off, not merely a different way of working.

The sad fact is that her brilliant idea probably can’t be enforced, as she admits herself. Of course, you could show the police the email your boss sent at 5:01pm and get the lawbreaking scum locked up with the thieves and murderers where he belongs – but once you’ve done that, where do you work? Your bosses – the ones you haven’t just had dragged crying from the office in handcuffs, I mean – might not email you in the evenings, but it would be surprising if they offered you much in the way of promotions and pay rises, either. Workplaces have social hierarchies and systems of tit-for-tat as well defined as any gorilla troop, and breaking the unspoken conventions is usually punished.

But whether or not it can work, the point is that someone is trying. And they are trying for the sake of our health. So next time I log in on a Monday, and see the 250 emails some evil whip-cracker wanted me to have read over the weekend, I can think: in Germany, they want to throw people like you in jail.

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