What is the ‘right to disconnect’, and should you be thinking about it?

Source: Unsplash/Mimi Thian.

Earlier this week, workers for Victoria Police won the ‘right to disconnect’, giving them freedom from all work-related contact when they’re off the clock, with the exception of emergencies.

The news has sparked some discussion in both the public and private sectors. In a post-pandemic world, in which the boundary between work and home has been all-out erased, should employees be able to go offline as soon as 5pm rolls around? And do they want to?

We’ve taken a look at what exactly the right to disconnect means, some of the issues involved, and whether businesses should be responsible for their employees’ work-life balance.

What is the right to disconnect?

Essentially, the right to disconnect mandates that employers and managers must avoid contacting staff members outside of their working hours, except in an emergency.

It means employees can typically not be compelled to do any form of work outside of agreed hours.

Now, the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling for the right to disconnect to be extended to more workplaces.

“It is essential that working people be able to disconnect,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus reportedly said.

In particular, she said this applies to people who do especially psychologically stressful work.

“Without clear boundaries separating work and the rest of your life, working people can be both expected to work extra unpaid hours and be subject to a job that is at high risk of mental health problems,” McManus said.

What are the issues?

With technology making it easier to be online at all hours of the day, the right to disconnect rules are intended to prevent people from feeling pressure to respond to work emails or calls late at night.

In turn, that is intended to help reduce stress and the risk of burnout.

However, the pandemic has also led to a normalisation of flexible work. For example, while it’s reasonable for a police or hospital worker to work their shift and then log off, a knowledge worker with a family might feel more comfortable spreading their work hours across the day.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s acting chief Jenny Lambert has raised concerns that the right to disconnect could see employers reinstating a ‘clock-in’ system, and set working hours.

Are other countries doing it?

The right to disconnect was legislated in France back in 2016. Businesses with more than 50 staff members must now lay out clear guidelines as to when workers can be expected to send or answer emails.

But, employees do have some power in establishing their own terms, and arrangements are made based on their roles and the nature of their work.

Still, one business was reportedly fined €60,000 ($92,000) for ordering a director to leave his phone on permanently.

In January this year, Members of the European Parliament called for the right to disconnect to be a fundamental right, EU-wide, suggesting the ‘always on’ culture leads to increased risk of burnout, anxiety and depression.

Parliament called for a new law that enables those working digitally to disconnect outside their working hours.

Is a right to disconnect your responsibility?

Currently there’s no legal responsibility to offer your employees the right to disconnect. However, there are strong arguments in terms of employee mental health and wellbeing.

If it was legislated, it’s likely the responsibility would indeed fall to the employer — although perhaps (as in France) smaller businesses may be exempt.

In the proposal for the EU law, the members note in particular that the onus should be on employers to ensure workers will not be subjected to any discrimination, criticism or any other adverse action for exercising their right to disconnect.

In an article for The Conversation, research fellow Ana Rudnicka and PhD candidate in anthropology Dave Cook, along with Joseph Newbold, a lecturer in human-computer interaction at Northumbria University, noted that in the UK, some employees are putting in an extra two hours of work each day.

Much of the reason for this comes down to the culture fostered by the workplace.

The “collapse of work-life boundaries”, along with the fear of being under additional scrutiny from an employer, and being grateful to still have work, all combine to employees working harder for longer.

But, the researchers argue that just because we can be connected all the time, doesn’t mean we should.

“Expectations for workers to be available 24/7 were accelerating before the pandemic and, unchecked, they will become the norm,” the article notes.

Even as we move out of the COVID-19 crisis, remote working in some form is likely to stay.

“Ensuring it continues in a balanced way should not a responsibility that rests entirely on individuals.”

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