Updated October 12, 2018
Finding a work-life balance has become a difficult task these days. The barrier between one’s work and private life is becoming increasingly porous, largely due to the multiple communication tools that prevent us from really taking a break.
The professional population is increasingly replying to work emails and phone calls at night, during the weekends and on holidays.
Having easy access to emails via laptops and smartphones has its advantages, because it allows teleworking and flexible hours. However, it also brings about negative effects, such as an increased work pressure. In the long term, it can even lead to stress symptoms (exhaustion, neck and shoulder pain, headaches, etc.) and burn-outs.
Should there be a right to be disconnected from work and does it already exist in some places? There is no existing European Union regulation on this topic yet, but in this article, we look at the situation in four neighboring countries in Europe: Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany.
France is leading the way on this topic. It was the first country in Europe to incorporate the ‘right to disconnect from work into law (le droit à la déconnection). It was included in the so-called El Khomri law (officially named the "Labor Law") and has been applicable since 1 January 2017.
The right to disconnect in France obliges companies with more than 50 employees to establish a company agreement on the management of employee availability outside working hours. If no agreement can be reached, the employer must set up a charter, which defines how the right to disconnect will be respected and the actions to be taken, as well as training for making their employees aware of a reasonable use of their digital tools.
There is no definition of ‘the right to disconnect’. It is up to companies themselves to define it and to set the necessary actions for achieving it. There is also no penalty in case of absence of such an agreement. Some worry that this might not be so effective, but if an employee sues its company for burn-out and the latter has not established any prevention policy aimed at establishing this right to disconnection, it will look bad in court. It can be said that the right to disconnect is there to be respected.
In December 2017, the Federal Minister of Work issued a proposal to oblige companies to make agreements with their employees on how they should manage emails that are received after working hours or during the weekend.
The proposal does not contain a ‘right to disconnect’, such as it is being regulated in France. It is merely an obligation to have an agreement between the employer and its employees. The agreements should respect that there are certain hours or time blocks in which employees should not be disturbed during their leisure time.
The proposal has been discussed and adopted in the federal parliament in April 2018. It is yet to be seen how it will be implemented in practice.
The company Lidl is already setting an example in Belgium by ensuring that emails being sent after 6 pm, will only be received in the employees’ mailboxes at 7 am the next morning. That way, employees do not check their inbox after work.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch Labour Party wanted to add the right to disconnect into Dutch law. However, they are not part of the new coalition government, formed after elections in 2017. The party wants to give employees the right to be ‘unreachable’ after a long day of work, in order for them to have ‘quality time’ with their family and friends.
Their plan was to oblige employers with more than 50 employees to reach an agreement with trade unions and work councils about the right to disconnect. It would be very similar to the French model. As it stands, although there are some murmurings of regulation, it is hard to see anything being adopted in the short-term.
In Germany there are many large companies that have taken initiatives themselves to protect their employees from work stress after hours and they have been doing so since 2011.
For example, employees of Volkswagen can no longer send e-mails half an hour after the end of the working day. For car manufacturer Daimler, who produce Mercedes cars for example, employees can activate an "auto-delete" in their mailbox during their holidays. Messages that arrive during the holiday will then automatically be deleted. In this way the company avoids that employees have an overflowing mailbox when they come back to work. Employees of BMW are also not obliged to respond to emails of their bosses after working hours.
Even though it seems to be a common thing in Germany, there is no regulation on the right to disconnect. At least not yet.
It is beneficial for employees not to work all the time, and workers should have the right to occasionally draw the line when their employer’s demands intrude on evenings at home, treasured vacations or Sundays with friends and family. Productivity and effectiveness will increase when an actual mental and physical break from work is guaranteed.
Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness as well as relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.
It can be concluded that actions are being taken to help employees disconnect from work and to give them assurance to do so. However, it is difficult to enforce this ‘right to be disconnected’ in the world we live in today.
First of all, it is easy to get around this obligation, simply because all people have laptops, smartphones, social media and emails in their private life too, which makes it hard to differentiate between work and private life, since often the same device it used for both.
Secondly, certain jobs don’t allow ‘disconnection’ and require a certain level of permanent connection. For example, people of the same company that that work in different time zones of the world. Employees know this when they sign their contract, so it should not be a problem, since agreements have already been made.
Thirdly, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them. Some like finishing that long report after work, in a quiet space at home or catching up on some emails after the work day while commuting by train.
It is certain that with the introduction of a right to disconnect, companies must take into account demands from employees for both their protection as well as the flexibility they can enjoy. The positive thing about this is that it can encourage conversation between employers and their employees, working together to find a good way of achieving work-life balance.