The right to disconnect: The new laws banning after-hours work emails

The right to disconnect: The new laws banning after-hours work emails
Laws around the world are increasingly trying to grapple with the impact of digital technologies eroding the work/home separation
Laws around the world are increasingly trying to grapple with the impact of digital technologies eroding the work/home separation
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Laws around the world are increasingly trying to grapple with the impact of digital technologies eroding the work/home separation
Laws around the world are increasingly trying to grapple with the impact of digital technologies eroding the work/home separation

A new study has found you may be suffering from excessive stress and anxiety about work expectations even if you don't actively check work emails in your off-hours. The mere expectation of being in contact 24/7 is enough to increase strain for employees and their families, the new research suggests. In today's ultra-connected world, with many people often getting work emails sent to their smartphones, a growing number of countries and companies are endorsing "right to disconnect" laws, recreating a much-needed boundary between work and home.

William Becker, from Virginia Tech, has been studying the impact of technologies on workers' well-being for several years now. His latest study found that workers do not even need to be actively checking work emails after-hours at home to experience the harmful effects of being always contactable. Becker suggests implicit expectations from an employer that the employee is always contactable can trigger feelings of anxiety.

"The insidious impact of 'always on' organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit – increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries," says Becker. "Our research exposes the reality: 'flexible work boundaries' often turn into 'work without boundaries,' compromising an employee's and their family's health and well-being."

Becker's research is part of a growing body of work that is affirming the negative effects of an "always on" work culture. Around the world, several governments have begun to go as far as legislate laws allowing employees the freedom to not have to engage with work outside of official work hours.

France, in particular, has been ahead of the world in establishing legal frameworks protecting a person's right to disconnect. Back in 2001 the idea was first floated when the French Supreme Court ruled that employees are under no obligation to bring work home, and as technology progressed the Court continued to update its ruling. In 2004, for example, it was established that it was not misconduct if an employee was not reachable on a smartphone outside of work hours.

The right to disconnect was solidified at the beginning of 2017 with France introducing the El Khomri law, which suggests every employee contract must include a negotiation of obligations required of an employee regarding how connected they are outside of office hours. The law is reasonably vague and doesn't restrict after-hours work communication, but rather obliges organizations to negotiate these terms clearly with prospective employees. Italy has also recently incorporated a very similar right to disconnect law, again simply requiring contractual clarity over an employee's responsibility to communicate outside of general work hours.

Germany is another country that has been grappling with these questions for several years. German employment minister Andrea Nahles has been calling for "anti-stress" laws since 2014, with the first phase of long-term research revealing in 2017 that the stress of being constantly in touch is indeed causing an increasing number of German workers to retire early.

Several German companies have jumped ahead of the curve, realizing it may be better for overall work culture to self-regulate some of these matters. Volkswagen was first in implementing a company-wide freeze on emails back in 2012. The company set its internal servers to not route email to individual accounts between 6.15 pm and 7 am.

In 2014 German automaker Daimler instituted an even more dramatic program, deleting all incoming emails to an individual when they are on holiday. The optional system is designed to send a reply to all incoming emails when a person is on holiday notifying the sender that they are not in the office, and that the email will be deleted. The idea is that not only will a holiday be left undisrupted, but the worker can confidently return to work without the looming stress of a packed inbox.

A recent bill from New York City councilman Rafael Espinal, is set to bring these modern concerns to the United States, with the country's first local regulation proposing to make it illegal for employers to require employees be email contactable outside of normal work hours. The early draft legislation is interestingly much more restrictive than its European counterparts, essentially making it a flat rule that employees cannot be forced into electronic communication contact outside of paid work hours.

Balancing the more restrictive nature of the proposed New York regulation is a set of financial penalties for violations, often only consisting of fines amounting to a few hundred dollars. Espinal is realistic about how much change his proposed law will actually prompt, hoping it will cause individual workers to think a little more about drawing a personal line between work and home.

"I think this will lessen a lot of the anxiety that goes with having a job in the city and allow people to draw their own lines about when work ends," says Espinal. "It's important to note that this doesn't prohibit employers from reaching out the way they do now, but it just says that the employees can make a decision about whether they want to respond at that moment."

Of course, the great catch-22 governments and private companies face when trying to grapple with this issue is the increasingly globalized nature of many jobs. Communication technologies have undeniably allowed for greater connectivity across timezones, inherently making many businesses more efficient. William Becker affirms that simply blanket banning off-hours emails for everyone is not a practical solution.

"If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities," says Becker, getting to the core of the issue.

Employees knowing up front what their job will entail is key to trying to find a balance in the future between constant communication and relaxed home time. Becker also suggests there is an onus on employers to better manage organizational expectations with the knowledge that increased stress and burn out will only negatively affect a worker's overall job performance.

The new study was published in the journal Academy of Management Proceedings.

Source: Virginia Tech

1 comment
1 comment
I've worked jobs with on call schedules and the stress is real. My phone rings and it means my day is about to be ruined. Some people carry 2 phones and leave the work phone somewhere else when they aren't on call which is not a bad strategy. I used the same phone for personal/work and tried to use different ring tones but when I hear my on-call ring tone (even if it's someone else's phone) my blood pressure would spike. I know salaried employees that are on call at all times and work pretty much non-stop. Foxconn gets heat for their working conditions and their employees are limited to 49 hours a week. I've logged and worked with people who have logged twice that at times in the US.