The right to disconnect
With the festive season around the corner many will be relishing the opportunity to take a much-deserved break in the company of restricted family and friends. In this digital age it is even possible to share such moments across borders from the comforts of home. The other side of the coin, however, is that the digital age makes it harder to disconnect from work as your employer could be just one mouse click away! Such situation is creating a conundrum for workers – should they shut down communication with the outside world after office hours with the risk of having to facing the music from their boss the following morning?
Awareness on the “right to disconnect” has grown rapidly since the turn of the millennium with the emergence of new means of communication such as e-mail and wider use of mobile phone technology. In this respect Covid-19 has been a game changer as it forced thousands to work remotely, thus relying even more on technological means to carry out their duties. According to Eurofound since the start of the pandemic, over a third of EU workers are working from home.
This shift has blurred the boundaries between work and private life even more. Many employees are starting to complain that it is harder to switch off when working from home rather than the office.
The issue is also affecting their mental health. Health Commissioner John Cachia last year had called for clear guidelines on the matter to establish guidelines on what is urgent, how communication takes place and some form of cut-off lines.
According to OECD and EU statistics in the pre-pandemic era mental health was costing Malta €400 million annually, mostly unproductive times at the workplace.
While there are calls to start addressing the issue from a legislative perspective, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach would be a mistake. A significant development has emerged from the European Parliament which has endorsed a resolution saying that workers must be allowed to switch off digital devices without facing consequences. The move, which was spearheaded by the Employment Committee says that EU countries must ensure that workers are able to ensure the right to disconnect effectively, including by means of collective agreements. This right is vital to protect workers’ health in the wake of the risk of an “always on” culture whereby employees should be “rechargeable” at any time. Such “always on” mentality negatively affects the work-life balance, physical and mental health.
JosefVella, CEO of UĦM Voice of the Workers emphasizes that remote working is here to stay. He urges Employers not to see remote working as a financial exercise to cut down on budget. Rather, employers should diverge their budgets to make remote working a fair possibility with the right to disconnect.
As ETUC deputy Secretary General Esther Lynch said, “working from home every day can lead to longer hours, less free and interrupted sleep unless it is managed properly”. She continued to emphasize that “people working from home have exactly the same rights as in law as they would if they were working from the office and we need to ensure that principle is enforced”.