The Right to Disconnect from work: Soon a reality in Europe

Working at home or working at all hours? As the EU aims to eliminate confusion, the right to disconnect from work adds another layer to EHS compliance.

Beatriz Garcia Fernandez

by Beatriz García Fernández-Viagas

The right to disconnect from work might seem like a given, but it’s only recently getting an official legal framework – albeit proposed. As the EU Parliament sets in stone permission for workers to “sign off,” it will mean new responsibilities for businesses to take on. Below we look ahead as regulators work to turn off this “always on” culture. Learn what’s already in place, what’s in the pipeline, and the practical steps your company can take to get ready.

Leading legislation: Disconnect from work by cutting digital time

It makes sense that how much time employees spend working online plays an integral role in how often they log off. So much so that limiting the use of digital tools for work purposes was already a regulatory concern in some EU countries long before the pandemic.

France pioneered this field in 2017 as the first EU Member State to legally recognize the right to switch off from work. The French Labour Code requires all companies with 50 employees or more to reach an agreement with workers’ representatives regulating the use of digital devices during rest and leave periods.

Other countries soon followed. In the same year, Italy published a law requiring employers to conclude a written agreement with so-called “smart workers” (that is, employees with flexible working arrangements). This Law No. 81 of 22 May 2017 regulates how companies ensure these workers’ rest – and their right to disconnect from work. In Spain, this right was first included in the Data Protection and Digital Rights Law in 2018. While other Member States, such as Belgium, haven’t yet explicitly put this right in, well, writing, they have encouraged large businesses to negotiate company-level usage policies for digital tools.

The pandemic push for more regulation

Despite these earlier regulatory moves, the official right-to-disconnect trend only gained real momentum in 2020. COVID-19 turned occupational health and safety on its head – and sent many of us away to work from home. According to Eurofound, EU companies’ implementation of teleworking practices increased by almost 30% during the pandemic. And some Member States raised regulations to follow suit.

For instance, Ireland introduced a code of practice defining workers’ right to disengage from work (including electronic communications) outside regular working time. In the same vein, Luxembourg now requires teleworking agreements to clearly establish when the remote worker will be available. And Slovakia has recently amended its Labour Code to introduce the right to not use work equipment during holidays and rest times. Still other EU countries, including the Netherlands and Portugal, submitted legislative proposals to develop an internal policy ensuring teleworkers’ right to disconnect from work outside of working hours.

Even though each of the previous steps contributes to overall progress, there’s still a long way to go to fully cover disconnection. These diverse regulations across Member States need a common EU approach.

A look ahead as regulators work to turn off this “always on” culture.

Connecting the dots: An official Right to Disconnect from work

To close the current legal gap, EU lawmakers seek to regulate the permitted timing of work-related electronic communications. In short, the official Right to Disconnect Directive. Through its proposal, the European Parliament calls for a legislative framework. They’re asking the Commission to lay down minimum requirements for remote work. And, beyond that, to recognize the freedom to disconnect from work as a fundamental right across the EU.

According to the Parliament’s Resolution, the future directive should require employers from all sectors, both public and private, to:

  • set up an objective, reliable, and accessible system for measuring working time
  • implement employees’ right to disconnect in a fair, lawful, and transparent manner
  • provide in writing clear and sufficient information on workers’ right to switch off
  • grant compensation to employees for any work performed outside of working time
  • refrain from and protect against any form of discrimination, less favorable treatment, dismissal, and other adverse measures against workers who exercise this right

Currently, the Commission is drafting the directive, and its target publication date is still unknown. But your business can still get ready.

Your best start to ensuring the right to disconnect from work

Although no one doubts the benefits of switching off, ensuring workers’ right to do so isn’t an easy matter to address in practice. A one-size-fits-all solution isn’t appropriate for all companies in all sectors and locations. For instance, limiting the use of business e-mails outside of work hours supports employees’ work-life balance and mental well-being.

On the other hand, this initiative is hard to implement in international companies collaborating across multiple time zones. As another example, inhibiting access to working tools could be detrimental for workers who need more flexible working hours, such as those with child- or dependent-care responsibilities. Of course, to ensure your employees’ right to disconnect from work, you’ll need to develop a targeted plan of action for your company and workforce’s specific needs. However, there are some steps you can take no matter how or where your employees work.

Raise employees’ awareness

Regardless of your approach, one good practice for any industry is to raise workers’ awareness. Train and educate them on the risks of overworking. As part of your company policies and communications, emphasize the importance of taking breaks during the workday and disconnecting from all working devices when that day is done.

Check in on teleworkers

Additionally, if you’re an EHS professional, make sure to bring these issues into the bigger picture that you’re already monitoring. Assess the psychosocial risks your teleworkers face within the general health and safety risk assessment. Such risks include increased stress, burn-out, and the feeling of isolation.

Encourage employees to disconnect

In the end, your employees’ likelihood of disconnecting from work starts with the bandwidth they have to do so. One of the most important steps to aligning with the upcoming directive is to downsize expectations into more realistic requirements. For instance, try reducing the amount of internal meetings and implement a back-up system to cover employees on leave to prevent overwork.

These measures encourage your employees to sign off when they shouldn’t be on. Plus, they give workers more capacity to be productive when they should be.

Integrate “disconnect from work” into your company’s duty of care

Since the COVID-19 crisis, teleworking’s prominence has increased, and with it, the risk of overwork – and eventual burnout. More than ever, employees need official regulations to protect their right to disconnect from work. Especially when that work is done from home. However, granting an overarching framework across the EU isn’t straightforward. Both regulatory differences between Member States and practical implementation challenges create obstacles for making this right a reality.

While the legislation falls into line, you can already get ahead of the practical issues. Consider integrating policies for signing off into your health and safety program. Start with a baseline analysis of your teleworkers’ health and safety risks. Then look for where you can apply the principles of the proposed directive. Be sure to communicate with workers and gather feedback along the way. As a result, you’ll tap into benefits not just for your workers’ mental well-being but also a better functioning business as a whole.

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