There have recently been a growing number of calls in some countries to give employees the right to ignore out of hours work calls and emails in an attempt to rescue harassed staff from the perils of digital burnout.
In France, a measure has been introduced for the first time to give employees a “right to disconnect”. Organisations with more than 50 workers are now obliged to negotiate on employees’ rights to disregard their smartphones or other devices outside their normal working hours. When the proposal was first mooted it was met with some mockery but the French Government insisted that the problem of permanent connection is universal and increasing and that intervention was needed.
Socialist MP Benoit Hamon stated: “All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant”.
“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash-like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails-they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down”.
New York City Council are following the lead of the French by considering introducing a law prohibiting private companies with more than 10 employees from requiring them to respond to work emails and texts out of hours. The bill, if passed at committee stage, would not make it illegal for employers to email and text employees at all hours of the night and on the week-ends but would make it illegal for employers to terminate employees’ employment or otherwise compromise employees’ employment because they did not return after hours emails and texts.
The lawmaker who introduced the New York City bill said the reasoning behind it was: “So many of us are glued to our smartphones and our computers, it’s important to understand that we don’t have to feel as if our work has to spill into our personal lives.”
But will such law work? Many have doubts. Some French employees expressed opinions. A software writer noted “I think the right to disconnect is wonderful for improving the human condition but totally inapplicable.” A sales manager indicated “I do sales. I like doing sales. It means I use email late into the evening and at the week-end. I don’t want my company preventing me from using my mail box just because of some law”. Others believe that the issue should be addressed by education rather than legislation and also given the speed of advances in technology the law could be made irrelevant very quickly. Further there is no penalty for violating the law.
There are no plans for such legislation in the UK but burn out and employee morale is every business’s problem in whatever country you operate so it may be a good idea to discuss the right to disconnect with your staff for the sake of improving staff morale or business culture. There is little doubt that the subject of communications overload needs to be on each employer’s agenda.