Is it time remote workers are given the ‘right to disconnect’ while at home?

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Remote working is making the work-life balance harder to achieve for many U.S. employees. Image: Unsplash/ Kari Shea

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • 50% of UK home workers surveyed during the first COVID-19 lockdown said they were unhappy with their work-life balance.
  • European lawmakers say workers deserve the “right to disconnect” at home.
  • France already has a law in place and other nations are planning to follow suit.

Once a sought-after perk for the few, working from home (WFH) has become the norm for millions of office workers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the “always-on” digital workplace, where the boundaries between work and homelife become so blurred they disappear altogether, is an increasing threat to mental health.

Which is why, in December 2020, the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment passed a non-binding resolution calling on the European Commission to enact into European law a “right to disconnect” from work while at home.

Have you read?

Eroding home life

As in so many other areas of life, the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already underway.

A 2019 survey found that three-quarters of US office workers check work emails during evenings and weekends. One in 10 said they looked for work emails on their smartphones “constantly”, and a similar amount checked at least once an hour.

a graph showing the share of workers in the U.S. who check their work e-mails outside of normal work hours as of July 2019
43% of workers checked their emails every few hours outside of normal work hours as of July 2019. Image: Statista

Now add in the findings of a German study that found home working leads to longer working hours, with men putting in an average of six hours unpaid overtime a week and women one hour. The women, it should be noted, ended up doing the bulk of the childcare as well.

The “right to disconnect” has been enshrined in French law since 2016. Employers with more than 50 workers must negotiate agreements with trade unions to allow workers the right to disconnect from work technology after hours.

Prompted by fears that the pandemic is eroding family and home life, the German government has promised a new law to regulate home working. Greece, Ireland and Spain are reported to be considering following suit, according to the Financial Times.


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Time for change

“The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work and we must update our rules to catch up with the new reality,” the Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba told Associated Press in December 2020, when European lawmakers voted in favour of the right to disconnect from work-related technology after hours.

“After months of teleworking, many workers are now suffering from negative side effects such as isolation, fatigue, depression, burnout, muscular or eye illnesses,” he said. “The pressure to always be reachable, always available, is mounting,” Saliba added.

Half of people who had to switch to home working during the UK’s first lockdown said they were unhappy with their work-life balance, found an April 2020 survey by the Institute for Employment Studies, and 48% reported working long and irregular hours.

a graph showing the percentage of employees and executives who don't see eye to eye
There is a clear difference in opinion between employers and employees. Image: IBM

Globally it was found that, while bosses thought the transition to home working had gone well last year, employees disagreed.

Eight out of 10 managers believed they were supporting their employees’ physical and emotional health, but only 46% of workers thought their organization was doing enough to help them with their well-being, according to an IBM survey of 3,450 executives in 20 countries.

“Even the monitoring of emails can create lots of anxiety,” Virginia Tech Professor William Becker said in a podcast on the WorkLife Hub. “This is one of the emotions which has pretty far-reaching effects in the brain and sets us up to not have positive interactions and positive experiences because we have this background anxiety always present.”

The European Commission has yet to respond to the Parliamentarians’ call, but last February, Jobs Commissioner Nicolas Schmidt expressed support for the idea. “The right to disconnect is something very normal, because we’re not robots,” he told a Brussels event.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, published in October 2020, calls for a change in our whole approach to the world of work to one that is more fair, sustainable and equitable.

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Related topics:
COVID-19Mental HealthFuture of WorkFuture of Work
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