EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Right to disconnect

Definition

The right to disconnect refers to 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.

Background and status

This concept has developed as a result of advances in communication technologies and their impact on people’s daily lives. The widespread use of smartphones and other digital devices means that being always ‘on call’ has become a reality in many workplaces, as continuous remote access can create pressure for employees to be constantly accessible. The expectation that workers will be available at almost any time for online or mobile communication is now considered potentially hazardous to workers’ health.

EU context

There is currently no European legal framework directly defining and regulating the right to disconnect. The Working Time Directive (Directive 2003/88/EC), however, refers to a number of rights that indirectly relate to similar issues, in particular the minimum daily and weekly rest periods that are required to safeguard workers’ health and safety. Furthermore, the right to disconnect is related to attaining a better work–life balance, an objective that has been at the core of recent European initiatives – for example, Principle 9 ('Work–life balance’) and Principle 10 (‘Healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment and data protection’) of the European Pillar of Social Rights, as well as the Work–Life Balance Directive – although they do not refer specifically to the right to disconnect.

Regulatory aspects

Call for an EU directive

On 21 January 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution in favour of the right to disconnect, calling on the Commission to prepare a directive ‘that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours’. This directive ‘should also establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods’. MEPs believe that ‘workers’ right to disconnect is vital to protecting their physical and mental health and well-being and to protecting them from psychological risks’. The resolution is accompanied by a legislative proposal that defines disconnecting as ‘not [engaging] in work-related activities or communications by means of digital tools, directly or indirectly, outside working time’.

Employers’ organisation BusinessEurope expressed strong concerns, asserting that it would be better to rely on the European framework agreement on digitalisation that the European social partners concluded in 2020 than to pass one-size-fits-all legislation. On the trade union side, the European Trade Union Confederation has argued that this agreement does not cover the right to disconnect and called on the Commission to consult the European social partners, pursuant to Article 154 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The ball is now in the court of the Commission, which enjoys the right of initiative. In its EU strategic framework on health and safety at work, the Commission explains that it will ‘ensure appropriate follow-up’, without mentioning any particular dates or instruments. It therefore appears that the issue of the right to disconnect is not considered urgent in the eyes of the Commission, which seems to want to evaluate the effects of the 2020 European agreement on digitalisation with regard to the application of the right to disconnect in companies before initiating a legislative procedure.

Groundbreaking law in France

At national level, France is considered to be a pioneer in legally recognising this new right. As early as 2013, a national cross-sectoral agreement on quality of life at work encouraged businesses to avoid any intrusion on employees’ private lives by specifying periods when devices should be switched off. This right was subsequently made law on 8 August 2016, and is now regulated by Article L.2242-17 of the Labour Code. France’s approach has gone some way towards inspiring other EU countries. According to a 2021 Eurofound report, to date, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain have legislation that includes the right to disconnect, and discussions were ongoing in other Member States.

Company-level initiatives

Beyond the formal and legal recognition of a right to disconnect, many initiatives at company level aim to regulate the possible negative impacts of communication technologies on workers’ lives. The French telecommunications group Orange, for example, signed a company collective agreement on 27 September 2016. Relating to the digital transformation of the group, this agreement established a right to disconnect for employees. In Germany, Volkswagen was reportedly the first company to implement a company-wide freeze on out-of-hours emails in 2012.

Some multinationals have also concluded transnational agreements with provisions on the right to disconnect. Belgian chemical company Solvay stressed in its global framework agreement on digital transformation that it ‘actively supports the general principle of disconnecting outside working hours’. Italian bank UniCredit has adopted a joint declaration on remote working with its European Works Council, which includes a right to switch off, to ensure that employees can keep to their standard working hours.

Related dictionary terms

BusinessEurope digitisation ETUC health and safety homeworking ICT-based mobile work telework work–life balance

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