Jobs and the Future of Work

Right to disconnect: The countries passing laws to stop employees working out of hours

Belgium's 65,000 civil servants now have the right to disconnect after office hours.

Belgium's 65,000 civil servants now have the right to disconnect after office hours. Image: Yasmina H/Unsplash

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Originally published on 8 February 2022 - this article has been updated.

  • The rapid switch to remote working during the pandemic has made the line between home life and working hours unclear.
  • Many remote workers feel they need to be available at all times.
  • But answering calls and messages after office hours are over can lead to stress and burnout.
  • Several countries in Europe have put legislation in place to allow employees to disconnect, and Kenya is looking at doing the same.

The shift to remote working has blurred the line between home and work life for many people, leaving them answering calls, texts and emails at all hours. This has prompted numerous countries to look at laws to protect the "right to disconnect".

Kenya is the latest country to do so – and the first African country to consider such a move. Its proposed Employee (Amendment) Bill seeks to prevent employers from expecting employees to answer calls, text messages or emails outside working hours, at weekends or on public holidays.

The bill would require firms with more than 10 employees to consult staff or trade unions about their out-of-work policies. And they would face fines of $4,000 if they break the rules.

Belgium's right to disconnect

Belgium passed a law in February 2022 allowing civil servants to switch off work emails, texts and phone calls received out of hours, without fear of reprisals. The legislation protects the country’s 65,000 public-sector employees from exposure to being permanently on-call, although out-of-hours contact is permissible in exceptional circumstances. Plans are being discussed to extend the new laws to employees in the private sector.

It is hoped the new rules will help prevent burnout and reinforce the importance of establishing a work-life balance, Belgium’s Public Administration Minister Petra De Sutter told the BBC.

The European Union (EU) defines the right to disconnect as “a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work
The European Union (EU) defines the right to disconnect as “a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work Image: REUTERS/Nick Oxford

Remote and disconnected

Some of the social changes brought about by the pandemic have redefined how and where many people work. And remote working has proved popular, leaving many people reluctant to return to full-time in-person office work.

More than 80% of Belgian employees – including 40% in managerial positions – across different parts of the economy said they would prefer to work from home at least two days each week, a national survey shows.

The lure of home office is reflected in other parts of the world, too. A survey of North Americans by job-listings site Flexjobs, found 65% of people who switched to remote working during the pandemic would prefer to keep working from home.

Graphic showing people's attitude to remote work. right to disconnect
A survey found almost two-thirds of North Americans want to continue working from home after the pandemic. Image: Statista

Almost three in five respondents said they would look for a new job if their current employer forced a return to the office. Just 2% said they would prefer to return to pre-pandemic full-time office life.

The absence of a commute and the expense associated with it were cited as key benefits of working from home, but working remotely is not without its drawbacks. More than a third of respondents said they found it difficult to unplug.

New research by New York's Cornell University suggests that remote jobs can boost workers' wellbeing and work engagement, but only if their work is restricted to regular hours. This means there is a need for new labour standards and management practices to prevent people working extended hours at home, says Duanyi Yang, Cornell Assistant Professor of Labour Relations, Law and History.


What is the Forum doing about keeping workers well?

A legal right to rest

The European Union (EU) defines the right to disconnect as “a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours”.

And while this right has not yet passed into EU law, a resolution passed in January 2021 called for an EU directive to be established.

This follows moves by several member states to establish legal precedents. France, seen by many as the pioneer in this area, enacted legislation in August 2016 allowing employees to switch off phones and other devices outside of set working hours. Companies with 50+ employees are obliged to draw up a “charter of good conduct” setting specific hours when staff can’t send or receive emails.

Have you read?

Portugal labels its work-life balance legislation the “right to rest”, with companies of 10 or more staff facing fines for contacting staff outside of set working hours. Workers with children below the age of eight are also permitted to work remotely under the new laws, which came into effect in November 2021.

Aside from legislation, a number of large companies have taken the initiative to protect their workers with multinational agreements supporting employees’ right to disconnect.

It seems that while laptops, tablets and smartphones allow us to communicate with anyone, anywhere and at any time, greater efficiency, reduced stress and a better work-life balance rests on us knowing when to switch them off.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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