Does the new telework generation need a right to disconnect?
Whatever the benefits of telework – and there are many, including more flexible working time, increased productivity and less commuting – there are drawbacks, as many of the one-third of Europeans who were exclusively working from home during the pandemic will attest. Primary among these is the ‘always on’ culture that telework engenders, encouraging workers to respond to emails, phone calls and texts from work long after the working day or week has ended. This situation may be aggravated if the organisational culture at work incentivises employees to accept heavy workloads and put in overtime, often unpaid. All of which upsets work–life balance, leading to conflicts between work and home life, insufficient rest and health problems like work-related stress and sleep disorders.
Concerns about the impact of telework on the mental health and work–life balance of workers are not unique to this period of pandemic, but the explosion in working from home has certainly focused policy attention on them, and this had led to a debate around the right to disconnect. Yet to be formally conceptualised, it can be described as the right of workers to switch off their digital devices after work without facing negative consequences for not responding to communications from bosses, colleagues or clients. The idea is not new and already had some time in the spotlight when France adopted legislation on the issue in 2016.
Member States following diverse paths
Apart from France, just three other countries – Belgium, Italy and Spain – currently have a right to disconnect on the statute book. None prescribe the way this right has to be operationalised and rely on social dialogue within companies and at sector level to do so. Differences exist between them in terms of which workers are covered by the legislation and the existence of a fall-back option should negotiations fail to reach an agreement – the French legislation, for instance, in this event requires the employer to draw up a charter defining the procedures for exercising the right.
In the Netherlands and Portugal, legislative proposals have been made, but the process is stalling. A further eight countries (Finland, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia and Sweden) are debating the issue, with discussions being most advanced in Germany, Malta and Ireland, where legislative proposals have been put forward in recent weeks. In some of these countries, the debate has resurfaced with the expansion of teleworking during the pandemic.
In the remaining 13 Member States, there is no debate on the matter. This may be due to the low prevalence of telework, as is the case in most eastern European Member States, or to the perception that existing legislation is sufficient, or because collective bargaining is the preferred approach to dealing with matters of work–life balance.
We did not identify any evaluations of the impact of the existing right to disconnect provisions in national legislation and without evalutations, it is difficult to know what is working and what is not working in each country. However, there is evidence that these provisions have helped to boost collective bargaining on the issue, resulting in more agreements signed both at sectoral and company levels.
- Working paper: Right to disconnect in the 27 Member States
Figure: Right to disconnect and national legislation: Status in the 27 EU Member States
Source: Eurofound, based on contributions by the Network of Eurofound Correspondents and the European Commission
Action at company level
Agreements reached by the social partners at company level implement a variety of hard and soft measures to apply the right to disconnect. Hard measures include shutting down employees’ internet connections after a certain time or blocking incoming messages – effectively a ‘right to be disconnected’. Softer measures include pop-up messages reminding workers (or clients) that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours. Such softer approaches are often accompanied by training emphasising the importance of work–life balance. While the different approaches provide companies with the flexibility to tailor solutions to their needs, the implications and impact differ. A hard approach can be more effective and places the onus on the employer, but it may limit the flexibility of both employers and workers around working time. On the other hand, a softer approach relies on the employee to disconnect, which they may be reluctant to do if it is seen as betraying a lack of ambition, which might harm their career.
Notwithstanding national differences, there is a broad consensus among the social partners that the issue of disconnection, as well as the organisation of working time in remote working, have to be determined and agreed through social dialogue at company or sectoral level to ensure that they are adapted to the specific needs of sectors and companies. However, in Member States with low unionisation and infrequent collective bargaining, such an approach could create an uneven playing field.
Legislation at EU level?
In a resolution adopted on 1 December, MEPs in the Employment Committee of the European Parliament stated that Member States must ensure that workers are able to exercise the right to disconnect effectively, including by means of collective agreements. Adding that this right is vital to protect workers’ health, they called on the Commission to propose an EU directive enshrining the right. This non-legislative resolution is expected to be voted on in a plenary session in January 2021. Once endorsed by the Parliament, it will be put forward to the Commission and Member States for implementation as part of future regulatory decisions.
Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a new debate in many countries about extending flexible working (including teleworking) to more workers, it is likely that discussions on the right to disconnect will become more pressing as the ‘new normal’ of working life unfolds. The increase in the number of collective agreements reached and actions taken at company level in countries with legislation on the issue demonstrate not only the important role for the social partners, but also that legislation can provide an impetus for the issue to be tackled, which can still be open to adaptation to specific requirements at company level.
Image © Syda Productions/Adobe Stock
Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.