U.S. business leaders likely had two reactions back in August, when a German government minister floated the idea of restricting the ability to contact employees outside of work. First: revulsion at such aggressive public-sector meddling. Second: smugness that, even in a country where the average workweek is 35 hours, employees are almost as technologically hogtied as their counterparts here.

But whether or not the anti-stress law passes (Chancellor Angela Merkel has back-burnered it for competitive reasons) some German companies have a better shot than others at protecting the personal lives of their work forces. For American business owners, their example is instructive.

Germany is a nation of small and midsize businesses: notably the long-lived, family-owned manufacturers known collectively as the Mittelstand. The Mittelstand tends to have close relationships with employees, many of whom remain with one company their entire lives. Elected work councils engage--generally amicably--with owners about subjects ranging from safety to staffing to support for older workers. Those councils are natural forums for discussing after-hours communication.

In addition, Mittelstand owners often live in the same small towns from which they draw their work forces. Executives and warehouse staff may attend the same local sporting events and drink together in the same beer halls. Obviously that doesn't preclude bosses bombarding employees with questions and directives 24/7. But it would tend to reinforce for them the reality--and preciousness--of their employees' outside lives.

Two factors might make the Mittelstand vulnerable to the erosion of work-life balance. First, employees with long tenures at family-owned businesses are often intensely loyal. Consequently, they may be more willing than most to sacrifice for the good of the company--and their employers may feel more comfortable asking them to do so. Second, these manufacturers do more global business than most of their counterparts in the United States, making it difficult to prevent missives landing in in-boxes at all hours. In companies where, at any given time, half the staff is spread around the world, restricting communications to the duration of the German business day is hardly pragmatic.

Philipp Klais, the fourth generation owner of Orgelbau Klais, a 65-employee maker of pipe organs in Bonn, sums it up when he says the key to protecting employees' personal lives isn't legislation but rather respect. "In our profession, the passion for our work can lead to the risk of not to know where to stop," Klaus writes in an email, sounding very much like the founder of a Silicon Valley startup. "Without this passion, the result would only be a pale shadow of what it could be. This passion also helps us to find the energy to forget about business hours. I personally think no law will solve that."

What will solve it, says Klais, is respect. Except in emergencies, to text an employee at 11 p.m. is an act of disrespect: a signal that the boss cares only about temporarily easing his or her own stress, without regard for escalating the stress of another. Leaders who nurture long, close, amicable relationships with workers may think twice before hitting send.

Published on: Dec 9, 2014