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The Right to Disconnect at Work – Is it A Legal Matter?

The Right to Disconnect at Work – Is it A Legal Matter?
01 September 2021
 

A European Parliament majority has voted for a law that grants workers the right to digitally disconnect from work without facing negative repercussions.

MEPs are calling on the European Commission to propose a law that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours.  It also wants to establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods.

We recently reported the potential law change making home working a default right under UK law. Although the UK is no longer required to abide by the EU’s employment legislation, these suggestions could represent a real shift in employment law and arguably a win for those supporting flexible work.

 

 

"We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always 'on' and overly long working hours. Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect."

– Alex Agius Saliba

Member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, European Parliament

 

The Problem of an “Always On” Culture

 

Although working from home has been instrumental in helping safeguard employment and business during the COVID-19 crisis, MEPs are arguing that the combination of long working hours and higher demands also leads to more cases of anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental and physical health issues.

Research by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that 77 per cent of employers have observed presenteeism in employees who are working from home in the last year. Presenteeism, is the act of continuing to work when unwell, and it's highlighted an "always on" work culture, says the CIPD.

The survey of 668 people professionals, representing 2.7 million employees, also found leaveism – working outside of contracted hours or using annual leave to work or when ill – is an issue, with seven in ten (70 per cent) employers observing this unhealthy behaviour over the same period.

Research by Eurofound shows that people who work regularly from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week, compared to those working on their employer’s premises. Almost 30 per cent of those working from home report working in their free time every day or several times a week, compared to less than 5 per cent of office workers.

 

The Right to Refrain From Work

 

MEPs consider the right to disconnect a fundamental right that allows workers to refrain from engaging in work-related tasks – such as phone calls, emails and other digital communication – outside working hours. This includes holidays and other forms of leave. Member states are encouraged to take all necessary measures to allow workers to exercise this right, including via collective agreements between social partners. They should ensure that workers will not be subjected to discrimination, criticism, dismissal, or other adverse actions by employers.

“We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always 'on' and overly long working hours. Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update worker’s rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age”, said Alex Agius Saliba, member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament said after the vote.

 

Will it Work?

 

Seyfarth Shaw LLP has addressed some potential issues to the “right to disconnect” law suggestion.

A right to disconnect is not the same as an obligation to disconnect. They argue that it could be said that working time legislation has little impact on long working hour cultures in the UK, with many employees opting out and few willing to complain that a right has been breached.

They also raise the point that legislation may actually reduce flexibility by introducing rigid working hours and could increase pressure to meet deadlines by a hard stop finish time. The pandemic may mean that workers have become accustomed to choosing different working hours, and that being uncontactable during evenings and weekends may mean employees need to be "always on" during normal working hours.

It would also be difficult to implement in global organisations, where workers span different time zones.

Picture: a photograph of a person working at a laptop, with their hands on their head, indicating stress

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 01 September 2021

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