Taking a call from the boss late in the evening while watching TV. Checking our work emails before even getting out of bed. Making sure our presentation for the next day is on point, even if it means staying up until 2 o’clock in the morning… All these are well-known situations that have long since become standard. The once clearly defined boundaries between work and personal life are increasingly blurred. The result: Work-life balance turns more and more into an imbalance, and stress and burnout are almost part of day-to-day business.
In response to the rise in work-related mental health challenges, governments and parliaments all over the world have raised discussions about introducing a so-called right to disconnect. But what exactly is the right to disconnect from work? In which countries do international employers have to respect their employees’ right to be offline? And what does disconnecting from work mean in the era of remote work?
What is the right to disconnect?
The official definition of the European Union on the right to disconnect reads, “a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours”. The right to disconnect from work is hence a legal assurance for employees that they don’t have to be available after they finished work for the day.
It basically means that employees don’t have to react to work-related phone calls, texts or emails outside of working hours, without their actions having negative repercussions on the evaluation of their job performance or the advancement of their career (e.g. not getting a promotion because of not being available outside of working hours). In some cases, managers and superiors may even be banned from contacting employees after working hours. The aim of introducing a right to be offline is to create a legal basis for workers to step back from their duties at the end of their workday and protect them from excessive workloads.
Why the right to disconnect is particularly important for remote employees
Although the first legal attempts to establish a right to disconnect for employees date from before the rise in remote work, more recent legal initiatives have stressed that having a right to be offline is particularly important for remote workers.
Working remotely – which in many cases turns out to be working from home – makes it difficult to separate work and home life, since both take place in one and the same environment. In contrast to their colleagues, remote workers cannot just leave the office and forget about work for the day, since thoughts about work are constantly lurking around.
Switching off and having a healthy work-life balance then becomes increasingly difficult – especially because flexible working hours can quickly lead to a feeling of never really being done with work. What’s more, remote employees often feel that they need to be available at all times. As stress levels increase, employees are increasingly prone to burnouts. Creating a legal basis for a right to disconnect from work is therefore considered an important step towards preventing burnouts among remote workers, increasing their quality of life and supporting mental health in remote teams.
Remote work and the right to disconnect: Are they incompatible?
Remote workers might be those who could (in theory) benefit most from the right to disconnect from work, but ironically, they could also be the ones to find it most difficult to put this right into practice. For instance, an article published by the BBC raises concerns that there may be an “inherent incompatibility of flexible schedules and the right to log off”. The article argues that it may not be possible to combine the right to disconnect from work with the realities of an increasingly flexible workforce.
If working hours for remote workers are flexible, where do you draw the line of what counts as outside of office hours? A similar problem arises for businesses with a globally distributed team. If team members are based in different time zones, what counts as in-office hours? In this case, flexible working hours is a key prerequisite to enable team members to collaborate efficiently.
Which countries have introduced a right to disconnect?
Many countries have started to discuss whether or not to add the right to disconnect from work to their labor codes. In some countries, the right to be offline hasn’t been fixed by law, but has instead been implemented via collective bargaining agreements or via internal policies in some major companies, like BMW and Daimler in Germany – to name but two examples. However, the number of jurisdictions where workers have been legally granted a right to disconnect remains quite low. Here is an overview.
In reaction to the pandemic, Argentina’s parliament passed a specific law outlining the legal framework for remote work. As part of this law, Argentia officially recognized the worker’s right to disconnect. Under the new legal provisions, employers in Argentia must refrain from contacting employees outside of their working hours as well as during leave periods. Employees hence have the right to go offline after hours without fearing repercussions.
Since February of this year, federal civil servants in Belgium have officially gained the right to disconnect from work after office hours. However, calling, texting or emailing employees outside of working hours is still permitted under certain conditions, defined as “exceptional and unforeseen circumstances require action that cannot wait until the next working period”. Although the law currently only applies to public-sector employees, debates are already being held about extending the regulations to employees in the private sector.
In response to the rise in remote work and flexible working arrangements, Chilean authorities officially introduced a right to disconnect as part of a legal framework on telecommuting and working from home. According to the legal provisions created in 2020, remote employees who are free to distribute their own working hours have the right to disconnect from work. Employers are therefore asked to restrain from contacting employees for at least 12 hours in any 24-hour period. Furthermore, employees shouldn’t be contacted on rest and leave days.
As the first European country (and also as the first country in the world, for this matter), France adopted an official right to disconnect from work in 2016. Under the new law, which is also known as “loi El Khomri”, employees are no longer required to respond to work calls or emails during non-working hours, and organizations with more than 50 workers are forced to develop a charter of good conduct and regulate the use of digital devices during rest and leave periods.
In a first publicly known enactment of the new law, British pest control company Rentokil Initial had to pay €60,000 to a former France-based employee because the company had required them to be constantly available. The ruling was made by the French Supreme Court.
In an attempt to create a legal framework for remote work, Greece has introduced a new law in 2021 which officially gives teleworkers a right to disconnect. Under the newly introduced regulations, employers are further required to install an electronic system for monitoring employee working hours.
On 7 April 2021, Ireland introduced a new legal framework on remote work, which also includes a right to disconnect. According to the new rules, employees are not required to be available outside of working hours, and equally have a duty to respect the right to disconnect from their coworkers. Despite the law’s primary focus on remote workers, the regulations are valid for both remote and office employees. However, what the law doesn’t stipulate is the legal meaning of “normal working hours”.
A novelty in the Irish approach is the fact that it also introduces guidelines for working across time zones. International organizations are asked to take steps to ensure that employees involved in international business processes are only required to reply to emails during their own working day.
After France, Italy was the second European country to introduce an official right to disconnect from work. Law No. 81 of 22 May 2017 makes it mandatory for employers to draft up a written agreement for employees who have flexible working arrangements (so-called “smart workers”), outlining their right to disconnect and the rules for rest and working hours.
Ontario has been the first Canadian province to enact a law granting employees a right to disconnect. The law covers companies with more than 25 employees. The latter are hence required to develop an internal policy providing guidance on how to guarantee disconnection from work after office hours. However, the law leaves it up to companies to decide how to address the matter and what to include in their internal policies, as long as expectations towards employees are clearly communicated.
Since November last year, employers with employees in Portugal risk fines if they contact their workers via text, call or email after office hours. The new right to disconnect concerns both in-office and remote workers. Under the new legal restrictions, contacting an employee after hours is considered a violation of the employee’s privacy. However, the contact ban doesn’t apply in situations of force majeure.
In the beginning of 2021, Slovakia amended its Labor Code, introducing several new parameters for remote working. One of the legal changes introduced during the amendment is a right to disconnect. Remote workers can now refuse to be available during certain hours of the day (or week) without having to fear negative consequences.
In 2018, Spain followed the examples of France and Italy, introducing its own right to disconnect from work as part of its Data Protection and Digital Rights Law. The law concerns both in-office and remote workers. In an attempt to ensure that rest times and employee privacy are respected, employers are required to develop internal policies, which define how the right to disconnect is to be exercised in the organization. However, the law currently doesn’t impose penalties for non-compliance.
Which countries could introduce a right to disconnect in the future?
With remote work on the rise, the introduction of a right to disconnect for remote workers has become a hot topic of discussion in many countries around the globe. Legislative proposals have also been made in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Malta, among others.
What’s more, the European Parliament has requested the introduction of an EU directiveto make the right to disconnect a fundamental right across all member states. The European Commission is expected to take action and follow the recommendations. If the recommendations pass into law, employers could soon be required to implement systems for measuring working time, provide specific information on employees’ right to disconnect, and even compensate employees for work performed outside of working hours.
In the United States, the Philippines, Canada and India, legal attempts to officially make disconnecting after work a basic right haven’t been successful so far, but this doesn’t mean that things can’t change in the future.
Knowing whether or not there are local laws banning you (as an employer) from contacting your employees outside of working hours is only one of the many regulations you have to consider when hiring remote employees in different countries. Using an Employer of Record when hiring the next member of your global team ensures full compliance with local labor laws and takes the administrative burden off your shoulders. Find out more about our global employment solution and book a demo with our sales team to see our global hiring platform in action.
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