EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Right to switch off

The right to switch off, sometimes called the ‘right to disconnect’, refers to a worker’s right to be able to disconnect from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours.

This concept has developed as a result of advancements in communication technologies and its impact on people’s daily lives. The widespread use of smart phones and other digital devices means that always being ‘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 are available at almost any time for online or mobile communication is now considered to be potentially hazardous to workers’ health.

There is currently no European legal framework directly defining and regulating the right to switch off. The Working Time 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 in order to safeguard workers’ health and safety. Furthermore, the right to switch off should be considered in relation to attaining a better work–life balance, an objective that has been at the core of recent European initiatives – for example, Principles 9 (work–life balance) and 10 (healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment and data protection) of the European Pillar of Social Rights, as well as the directive on work–life balance for parents and carers – although they do not refer specifically to the right to switch off.

Groundbreaking law in France

On a 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 defining 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. According to this text, the mandatory negotiations about equality between men and women and quality of life at work – which are to be carried out at company level only and therefore not systematically – have to plan, under specific conditions ‘the terms for the full exercise by the employee of [their] right to disconnect and the setting up by the company of devices to regulate the use of digital tools, in order to ensure the respect of the rest and leave periods as well as that of personal and family life’.

If employers and unions do not reach an agreement, the employer must to draw up a charter following consultation with the social and economic committee which ‘defines the procedures for the exercise of the right to disconnect and further provides for the implementation, for employees and managers, of training and awareness-raising actions to foster a reasonable use of digital tools’.

France’s approach has gone some way to inspire other EU countries. While a few EU countries, have some form of the right to disconnect included in their law, in some cases it is present in the policy of many large companies. In Italy, the right to disconnect is dealt with by Article 19 of Law No. 81/2017, which specifies that the written agreement between worker and employer must also regulate the rest periods of the employee and indicate the technical and organisational measures taken by the parties to guarantee the worker’s right to disconnect from company devices. In Luxembourg, the introduction of a legal right to switch off is the subject of debate, exemplified by a public petition (petition 1057) launched in July 2018.

Company-level initiatives

Beyond the formal and legal recognition of a right to switch off, many initiatives at company level aim to regulate the possible negative impacts of communication technologies on workers’ lives. The telecommunications group Orange in France, for example, signed a company collective agreement on 27September 2016. Relating to the digital transformation of the group, this agreement established a right to switch off for Orange employees. Investment banking company Natixis and financial services company Société Générale provide further examples of practices aiming to implement a right to switch off in France. In Germany, Volkswagen was reportedly the first company to implement a company-wide freeze on out-of-hours emails in 2012. The car manufacturer set its internal servers to not route email to individual accounts between 18.15 and 07.00. Many other companies have since followed suit.

The right to switch off is also implemented at a local level in some transnational companies, and this may potentially have an impact on the evolution of national legal frameworks: for example, the company collective agreement concluded at insurance company AXA in July 2017, which established the right of employees to turn their phones off out of working hours in Spain.

See also: digital economy digitisation health and safety homeworking ICT-based mobile work telework ;work–life balance.

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