Imagine it’s Friday evening and you’ve just clocked off work. You’re looking forward to spending a bit of quality time with your loved ones, when (quelle horreur!) you hear the ping of an email dropping into your inbox. It’s your boss. You feel obliged to fire back a response immediately and check a couple more work tasks off your list before the weekend. Sound familiar?
Many Europeans will recognise this scenario. If anything, homeworking during the pandemic has made things even worse. In the home office, the boundaries between work and private life are increasingly blurry, so that many people no longer have the opportunity to really ‘switch off’ from work. This lack of work-life balance can have negative consequences for both the physical and mental health of workers.
The European Parliament wants Europeans to have the Right to Disconnect. MEPs have called on the European Commission to develop measures to regulate digital working practices and enable workers to switch off properly outside of their working hours. Could such legislation help to protect workers’ free time?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Tristan, who believes life should be about more than just work. He feels people need a better balance between work and life to be happy. What are the benefits of being able to disconnect from work?
We put Tristan’s question to Alex Agius Saliba, a Maltese MEP from the S&D Group. He is the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the resolution on the right to disconnect. Would he agree with Tristan?
Definitely, I totally agree with the statement that there should be a balance in our life between work and family leisure. And the right to disconnect is important in this context, because in the end we have legislation at EU level that grants our employees a basic right to weekly and daily rest, but the digitalisation of our lives and our workforce has definitely blurred the boundary between working hours and private time.
And that is why it is of fundamental importance that we, at EU level, first and foremost define the right to be inaccessible and at the same time define a series of minimum requirements that each individual employer must meet, because without these minimum requirements one cannot enforce the right to switch off and the fundamental right to enjoy weekly and daily rest. And that can definitely help a lot when it comes to having a healthier workforce. Because in a situation where rest time is respected, our workforce will no longer suffer from an increase in mental health problems. That is why we believe that the right to disconnect can go a long way in reducing stress, isolation and burnouts.
Next up, Andrea makes the point that discussions around labour laws need to be based on facts and data. Looking at the facts, is the lack of a “Right to Disconnect” currently a problem in Europe?
We passed Andreas’ comment to Rebbekah Smith, Deputy Director of Social Affairs at BusinessEurope, which represents companies across Europe and works for growth and competitiveness on a European level. What does she think?
From our point of view, there is not a problem. We already have rules on working hours in Europe, so there are already rules stipulating how much time people should work, how much time they should rest per week and also per day. When people make excessive use of digital tools, not only at work but also outside of work, that’s not necessarily a good thing. But, from our point of view, it is better if this is regulated internally in the company, because employees also want greater flexibility, so you cannot have a uniform solution here. We believe that it is much better if this is regulated in the company between management, employees and the unions.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to MEP Alex Agius Saliba. Is there a really a significant problem with workers not disconnecting across Europe?
Definitely. Not just in Europe, but all over the world. A healthier workforce arises when one is not forced to be productive outside of official working hours. And this is also an important reason why we need the right to disconnect. Unfortunately, we are adopting a lot of American and Japanese culture with the motto ‘work till you die’. This is not the way forward. This is not the healthy option when it comes to how you deal with your employees. And, unfortunately, without the right to disconnect, we will end up in a situation where our workers are simply treated as robots. When people suffer for their mental and physical health, it has a host of negative consequences that are not so easy to cure. The right to disconnect can help our society prevent a lot of problems.
But, at the same time, healthy employees with good mental and physical health can definitely be more productive. In Scandinavia, there is partly the four-day week system and at the same time these countries are still more competitive than other traditional work cultures around the world. So, it is really important that we limit working hours and protect the fundamental right to disconnect by promoting this legislation. This is the first time at EU level that it doesn’t specify who should benefit from the legislation and who should not, as is the case with legislation in some member states: in France, for example, the right to disconnect is only granted to companies that employ more than 50 people. This means that the right to disconnect only applies to a small part (less than 10%) of the workforce, who are defined as ‘smart workers’. Our idea is to give this right to all European workers and to allow them to enjoy this right, because we believe that it is a fundamental right and not a right that only a small part of the workforce should have.
Finally, Darius points out that many people think working fewer hours makes them appear lazy. Would a right to disconnect help change this mindset? How does Rebbekah Smith from BusinessEurope see it?
I think, first of all, it is up to people how much they want to work. But, of course, the rights and the access you get also depend on how many hours you work and what your salary is. So, it’s important to keep that in mind, but it’s a personal choice. And then I am not convinced that a right to disconnect would change that situation.
I think the pressure to answer e-mails late into the night or to work harder can sometimes come from managers, of course, but also from colleagues or from the individuals themselves who want to prove themselves. And a lot of it has to do with the culture in the company. Is there a culture that encourages working outside of working hours or not? And from our point of view, a culture and a job cannot be prescribed by law. That comes from the company, the cooperation with the employees, and flexibility on both sides.
Should you have the right to disconnect from work? Is our work culture of being ‘always available’ bad for our health? Should working time be regulated individually by each company? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!