COVID-19 pandemic sparks new laws banning after-hours work emails
Before the pandemic struck in 2020, a movement to help maintain a healthy work-life was building around the world. Technology was increasingly blurring the boundary between home and work. Many people now had work emails delivered directly to their phone resulting in a pressure to be contactable and responsive 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This led to calls for "right to disconnect" laws protecting employees from work encroaching into their recreational time.
And then the novel coronavirus appeared, sending vast swathes of the world’s workforce home. While the ability to shift to working from home is undeniably a privilege afforded by new technology, a growing body of research is finding this massive shift to remote work has led to longer hours and greater challenges separating work and home life.
“People’s experience of working from home during the pandemic has varied wildly depending on their jobs, their home circumstances, and crucially the behavior of their employers,” explains Andrew Pakes, research director from UK trade union, Prospect. “It is clear that for millions of us, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, with remote technology meaning it is harder to fully switch off, contributing to poor mental health.”
Prospect’s research, conducted early in 2021, found around one in three UK workers were finding it hard to switch off from work. These workers also reported working more overtime hours compared to before the pandemic.
Other studies conducted around the world are reporting similar findings. An Australian survey of academic professionals conducted across the back end of 2020 found significant levels of out-of-hours work communication, with 55 percent of subjects sending work emails in the evenings and one in five employees saying they had supervisors who expected responses to work communications outside of work hours.
“Employees who had supervisors expecting them to respond to work messages after work, compared to groups who did not, reported higher levels of psychological distress (70.4% compared to 45.2%) and emotional exhaustion (63.5% compared to 35.2%),” writes Amy Zadow, from the University of South Australia. “They also reported physical health symptoms, such as headaches and back pain (22.1% compared to 11.5%).”
A compelling study from researchers at Harvard Business School looked at de-identified meeting and email meta-data from 3.1 million people. The data spanned metropolitan areas in North America, the Middle East and Europe and compared pre-pandemic levels with numbers collected during lockdown periods.
The researchers detected “significant and durable increases in the length of the average workday” in relation to remote working during pandemic lockdown. Email activity increased, as did the total number of meetings, although the average length of a meeting decreased.
“Consistent with the overall pattern of more meetings and more emails, our findings also point to a spillover of virtual communication beyond normal working hours,” the researchers write. “After all, one way to achieve more communication is to work longer days. Even with reduced time spent in meetings, the work demands brought about by the pandemic, coupled with personal demands that are always close at hand, could make it hard to meet obligations within the bounds of normal working hours.”
The new wave of "right to disconnect" laws
Laws protecting employees from being required to communicate outside of work hours have been growing in popularity in the wake of the pandemic-induced shift to remote work. Early in 2021 the European Parliament called for the right to disconnect to be clearly defined in EU law.
Alex Agius Saliba, a member of the European Parliament, led the call for the right to disconnect to be declared a fundamental right for all workers in the European Union. The proposal is designed to protect workers from, “discrimination, criticism, dismissal, or other adverse actions by employers” when pushed to engage in work-related tasks outside of clearly delineated working hours.
“We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always 'on' and overly long working hours,” says Agius Saliba. “Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update worker’s rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age.”
Slovakia went one step further, amending its labor code earlier this year to include right to disconnect protections. Argentina introduced a similar law, prohibiting employers from demanding workers are contactable outside of working hours. And Ireland’s workplace code of practice included new right to disconnect elements.
Even the World Economic Forum has called for changes to our traditional approach to work suggesting “fair, sustainable and equitable” approaches are necessary as we transition into a new way of working in the future.
Of course, not everyone thinks right to disconnect laws are a good idea. Len Shackleton, an economist from the University of Buckingham, argues limiting work hours could mean employers strictly surveil workers during business hours, making sure they are productive.
“…much of the flexibility of working at home, which has allowed you to nip out to the supermarket or to pick up the kids and make the time up later, will disappear,” argues Shackleton. “Employers will want to know why you haven’t answered that phone call or email [during your ‘on’ hours].”
Over the last year demand for employee surveillance software has skyrocketed. One report found interest in surveillance software had grown by 55 percent in June 2020 compared to pre-pandemic averages. These programs can include keystroke logging, instant messaging surveillance, or even send notifications to supervisors if keyboards are left idle for too long.
Andrew Pakes says pushing for a right to disconnect doesn’t mean workers have to accept invasive digital surveillance practices. He says what needs to happen now is that workers’ rights need to be clearly and comprehensively rewritten as our ways of work dramatically shift.
“We need to put proper legal frameworks around the ability of employers to monitor their employees and use their data for their own ends,” says Pakes. “This needs to be done now – it’s a lot easier to protect your freedoms than regain them once they have been lost. The pandemic has changed many things, but we cannot allow it to define work without workers having a voice over the changes we want.”