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What Is The Right To Disconnect And Whose Responsibility Is It?

Written by
Nicky Hoyland

As of 1st February 2022, new legislation came into effect in Belgium which allows public sector employees the legal right to switch off their work emails and ignore phone calls and texts received out of hours, apart from in exceptional circumstances. This intervention, aimed to help prevent burnout and reinforce the importance of a healthy work-life balance, is not the first piece of legislation rolled out in support of employees – and likely won’t be the last.

The idea of employees having a ‘right to disconnect’ emerged in France over 2 decades ago when the Labour Chamber of the French Supreme Court decided that “the employee is under no obligation either to accept working at home or to bring there his files and working tools”. This was further backed up by the Supreme Court in 2004, who affirmed that not being reachable by phone outside of working hours could not be considered misconduct.

Since then, a slew of other countries have followed suit including Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Slovakia, the Philippines, Canada, and now Belgium. Not to mention a number of companies introducing the notion within their own internal policies and procedures.

What Is The Right To Disconnect?

The right to disconnect is an employee’s right to switch off, both physically and mentally, outside of their normal working hours. The idea, now made law in some cases, empowers workers to ignore any and all work-related communications when they are ‘off the clock’ in order to protect their work-life balance and quell the rising tide of burnout in the working population.

The notion of a right to disconnect has recently been made necessary by technology, and its impact on the workplace. The rapid uptake of emails, video conferencing and instant messaging apps has increasingly blurred the lines between work and personal life. Where once there was a clear boundary in place when an employee physically left the office, that is no more. Flexible, hybrid and asynchronous working practices, enabled by technology, now mean that employees are contactable 24 hours, 7 days a week via their laptop, smartphones, and tablets.

The right to disconnect aims to stop this in its tracks, and enable employees to draw clear boundaries without being penalised by their employer. But, as we will explore in this article, it is not as cut and dried as it might seem from the outside looking in.

Why Is The Right To Disconnect Necessary?

Employee burnout is on the rise. So much so that the World Health Organization has included it in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases “as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

And it’s not all down to the pandemic. In a pre-2020 study, Gallup found that out of 7,500 full-time employees, 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that the pandemic has caused a rise in burnout, particularly for women (who are more likely to suffer burnout than men), millennials, Gen Z and Gen X.

While technology blurred the lines between the work and personal lives of employees, it might be fair to say that Covid completely erased it for a time. According to research by NordLayer Teams, home working has led to a 2.5 hour increase in the average working day in the United Kingdom, Austria, Canada, and the US.

Like lobsters in a pot of water that’s slowly increasing in temperature, we have suddenly found ourselves in the midst of an always-on culture that sees us dipping into our emails during the latest box-set binge and jumping to our laptops during weekends and evenings. Inevitably, as our working hours increase over time, so does the risk of burnout, which can have devastating consequences for both people and businesses.

This is precisely why the right to disconnect is so necessary, and why it is gaining in popularity. Many governments, businesses and indeed employees recognise that these unsustainable working practices and unrealistic expectations just aren’t sustainable in the long run. Instead, it’s time for change.

Balancing The Right To Disconnect With Flexibility

So, how does the right to disconnect work in a world where employees are demanding more and more flexibility in how, when and where they work?

This is the reality we’re all facing as we emerge into a post-Covid world. Many employees don’t want to return to offices full-time in a bid to embrace the possibilities and benefits offered up by hybrid working models and flexible arrangements. Yet, this creates it’s own universe of problems when it comes to defining communication inside and outside working hours and drawing boundaries between work and personal life.

The answer to this is both simple and complex. There is no one size fits all solution. Instead, to make the right to disconnect work hand in hand with flexible working patterns, a whole mindset change is needed. And it comes down to striking the right balance, meeting employees where they are, and providing them with the right tools and boundaries to work flexibly within.

This isn’t simply about dragging old working practices and making them fit in the here and now. That approach is flawed and destined to fail. What is needed is for leaders to shake up their approach as a whole, and take a collaborative, inclusive approach that redesigns the working week with both flexibility and the right to disconnect in mind. This includes addressing areas such as asynchronous work and communication, who can work where (and when), what employees are comfortable with, and the goals of the business as a whole.

Whose Responsibility Is It To Preserve The Right To Disconnect?

When it comes down to preserving the right to disconnect for employees: whose shoulders does it fall on? As governments the world over bake this right into legislation and law, it seems clear that the responsibility should fall to employers to both respect an employees’ right to switch off, but also to empower them to exercise that right.

Prospect, a trade union based in the UK with a community of more than 150,000 members, has proposed three ways in which a right to disconnect could be implemented:

  • An enterprise agreement between an employer and union, whereby unions negotiate for a local Right to Disconnect.
  • A directive approach, which consists of a legislative framework that puts an obligation on organisations to reach agreement with their workforce or unions on a Right to Disconnect.
  • A legislative or statutory approach that sets our more details about what a Right to Disconnect should look like in an organisation.

By enshrining the right to disconnect into legislation, there is a line being drawn very firmly in the sand. It is up to organisations to champion this right and negotiate protocols with staff that work for them, then give them the tools to do so in a way that is practical for them. Inflexible, one-size fits all approaches will only serve to exacerbate an ever-growing problem.

Tips For Creating Flexible Right To Disconnect Policies

Address The Causes Of Overworking

It’s clear from all of the above that overworking is now commonplace, rather than an exception to the rule. But the why behind this might look different across sectors, industries, and companies of different sizes. Employers should be curious as to why out-of-hours working and communication is so widespread. In order to create flexible Right to Disconnect policies, organisations should use tangible data around the kind of out-of-hours communication or work that is taking place. They should also consider when it is happening and who it involves.

In doing this, it may become clear that different workers across the business have different needs. What is ‘normal’ for one employer may not be so for another, therefore a blanket approach might not solve the problem, but rather make it worse.

Champion Equality & Diversity

There are undoubtedly individuals within every business who feel the impact of the ‘always on’ culture more keenly than others. Parents, carers, or people with disabilities might find the added pressure of responding to emails and messages out of hours even more stressful and difficult to deal with. On the other side of the coin, they may also benefit from the flexibility to pick up work at times more suited to them in order to bring their best selves to the table. A Right To Disconnect policy should be sensitive to these needs to ensure everyone gets the maximum benefit with minimum to no negative consequences.

Use Technology To Your Advantage

For some industries and sectors, closing down communication channels outside of ‘normal’ working hours just isn’t feasible. Nor is it recommended. But there are a number of viable solutions, some more technical than others, that can be effectively actioned within a Right to Disconnect policy. Automatic email replies are a simple, low budget way of empowering employees to set boundaries and manage expectations relating to their working patterns. Similarly, the introduction of email signatures or status updates that assert there is no need for an immediate response can go a long way to easing the pressure brought about by out of hours messaging.

Review and Refine

Getting a Right to Disconnect policy to work well for everyone will take some refining over time. Therefore, implementation should not be seen as a ‘one and done’ type task. Instead, your Right to Disconnect policy should evolve over time, informed by data collected from both the technology you use and direct feedback from managers and staff.

Similarly, if a policy is not being adhered to, it is the responsibility of an employer to get down to the why once again. Taking the time to stop and reassess will likely throw up the barriers to implementation that need to be addressed. If employees are resistant, or continue to work out-of-hours and ignore theirs (or their colleagues) right to disconnect, it is important to understand the motivations behind this and take steps to further define the aims of the policy, what it means, and (most importantly) why it matters.

Starting Afresh

We have entered a new world of work, and it is impossible (not to mention impractical) to go back from here. We have all been changed by the pandemic. Employees are waking up to a new era where they hold more of the power, and it is up to leaders to embrace that rather than engage in a tug of war that will ultimately have no winners.

The right to disconnect is just one step on that journey. As we take steps into a brave new world of digital transformation, where the ways we work are enabled by technology, now is the time to invest in sustainable, people-first solutions that humanise work, as well as recognise the importance of work-life balance.

To find out more about how we do this at Huler, contact us today or book a demo of HulerHub, our pioneering employee experience platform that aims to give organisations better infrastructure to reshape their employee experience for the better.

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