Pressure is growing within the European Parliament for an EU directive.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work in unprecedented ways. According to the second Eurofound ‘Living, Working and Covid-19’ survey, in July 34 per cent of respondents were solely working from home.
Telework can offer greater flexibility and autonomy in work organisation, enhancing efficiency and productivity. It can contribute to a better balance between work, family life and leisure time and cut commuting.
But telework can also blur the boundaries between work and private life, by making workers reachable by phone, e-mail or instant messages outside of normal working hours. This ‘always on’ culture may be aggravated by organisational cultures characterised by heavy workloads and overtime, resulting in long working hours. Moreover, remote working may bring monitoring systems which invade privacy and liberty.
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Working from home during the pandemic has led many to extend their working days late into the evening, and to the weekend. Eurofound research has shown that intensive teleworking, a work-life balance conflict, longer working hours and insufficient rest were quite common among employees working remotely and flexibly with information and communication technologies (ICT).
Workers in such arrangements are also more likely to report suffering from health-related problems, such as work-related stress and sleep disorders. So can ICT-enabled flexible work be better framed, to improve the protection of workers, while maintaining the benefits of flexibility for individuals and companies?
This is the background to the debate around the ‘right to disconnect’. Yet to be formally conceptualised, it can be described as the right of workers to switch off their devices after work—without facing consequences for not replying to e-mails, calls or messages.
Only France, Belgium, Italy and Spain have legislated for a right to disconnect. They do not prescribe how it should be operationalised and rely on social dialogue, at sectoral and company level, to determine the modalities of implementation. And there are differences in the scope of legislation and the existence of a fall-back option (such as a charter elaborated by employers), should negotiations fail to reach an agreement. In the Netherlands and Portugal, legislative proposals have been made but the process is stalling.
In eight countries (Germany, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Malta, Sweden and Slovenia), a more or less intensive debate is taking place on the right to disconnect, with discussions being most advanced in Germany, Malta and Ireland; in some the debate has re-emerged in the context of the pandemic.
In the remaining 13 member states of the European Union there is no debate on legislation. Existing legislation is perceived to be sufficient, ICT-based flexible work is not widespread—as in most east-European countries—or collective bargaining is preferred when it comes to improving work-life balance, as in Scandinavian countries.
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Right to disconnect and national legislation in the 27 member states
Hard and soft measures
The right to disconnect is being operationalised through a variety of hard and soft measures, determined primarily via company-level agreements. Hard disconnection tends to entail connectivity shutdowns after a pre-defined hour or the blocking of incoming messages—akin to a ‘right to be disconnected’. Softer measures include pop-up messages reminding workers (and/or clients) that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours. The latter are often accompanied by training on the importance of achieving a good work-life balance.
While different approaches provide the flexibility to tailor solutions to the company, the implications and impact also differ. A ‘right to be disconnected’ can be more effective and it places the onus on the employer, but it may limit flexibility for both employers and workers. A ‘softer’ approach, based on the ‘right to disconnect’, however requires employees to make a decision—which they may be reluctant to do if perceived as betraying lack of ambition, with potentially negative career implications.
While evaluations of the impact of right-to-disconnect legislation on work-life balance and health and safety are not to hand, there is evidence of a boost to collective bargaining, resulting in more agreements at sectoral and company levels. Notwithstanding the national differences, there is a relatively broad consensus among social partners that the modalities of connection and disconnection, as well as the organisation of working time in remote working, have to be determined and agreed, at least, through social dialogue at company (or/and sectoral) level, to ensure they are adapted to specific needs. It is however recognised that in member states with low unionisation and attenuated collective bargaining such an approach could entail an unequal playing-field.
In a resolution adopted on December 1st, the Employment Committee of the European Parliament said member states had to ensure that workers were able to exercise the right to disconnect effectively, including by means of collective agreements. Adding that this was vital to protect workers’ health, the committee called on the European Commission to propose a 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 would be advanced to the commission and member states for implementation as part of future regulatory decisions.
Given that the 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 also become more pressing as the ‘new normal’ of working life unfolds. Although some relevant legislation is in place at European and national level, data gathered by Eurofound show that the issues linked to constant connectivity persist.
Even in the absence of any evaluation, what is clear is that in countries with legislation on the issue, the number of collective agreements reached and actions taken at company level have increased. This demonstrates not only the important role of social partners but also that legislation can provide an impetus for the issue to be tackled, while still open to adaptation to specific requirements at company level.
This is part of a series on the Transformation of Work supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung