Europe considers making it law that your boss can’t bug you outside of office hours

I’d love to sort out that issue for you, Steve, but it’s Saturday and I'd rather not commit a crime


Europe has had enough of the blurring between work and personal time – where your boss calls you in the evening or colleagues email at the weekend – and is mulling introducing legislation that would provide a “right to disconnect.”

The European Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee adopted a report this week that proposes new rules giving workers the legal right to disconnect and refrain from work-related electronic communication during non-work hours and holidays. And an initial vote on it is planned for later this month.

“Twenty years ago, it was exceptional (unless in the case of emergency) to contact an employee outside working hours, and even more so during weekends or holidays,” an official briefing [PDF] notes. “Today, many managers routinely contact employees/colleagues by e-mail or by phone after work, at the weekend and during holidays. In some companies/countries, 'on call' is becoming the new norm.”

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The report also notes why so many of us engage outside of work hours even when we’d rather be, you know, having a life: “Being prompt is associated with higher productivity and considered a necessary condition for career advancement; for this reason, some employees consent to taking on the burden of onerous work schedules that invade their private lives.”

The issue is particularly relevant right now, say supporters of the measure, because the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more people than ever before working from home as a result, whatever boundaries did exist between work and home have been further eroded.

Facts and figures

Just over 5 per cent of employees “usually” work from home, according to EU stats, and that has stayed fairly constant over the past decade. However occasional working from home has jumped from 6 to 9 per cent over the same timeframe. During the global pandemic, however, that has rocketed to 37 per cent of people working from home all the time.

The impact of this blurring of boundaries is more than just irritation, the report warns. “People who regularly telework are more than twice as likely to work more than the maximum working hours set down in the EU's working time directive than those who don’t,” it notes.

“Rest is essential for people's wellbeing and constant connectivity to work has consequences on health. Sitting too long in front of the screen and working too much reduces concentration, causes cognitive and emotional overload and can lead to headaches, eye strain, fatigue, sleep deprivation, anxiety or burnout.

“In addition, a static posture and repetitive movements can cause muscle strain and musculoskeletal disorders, especially in working environments that don’t meet ergonomic standards. Over 300 million people globally suffer from depression and work-related mental disorders.”

As to what an actual law would look like, the report proposes updating the existing Working Time Directive (WTD) which defines maximum working hours and minimum daily and weekly rest periods to deal with modern work practices, although it notes that “it will be difficult to revise the WTD in a way that takes into account the right to disconnect.”

Instead, it argues that a more pragmatic approach would be to “adopt an enforcement directive related to the WTD, which would be of a more technical nature.” And by that it means clearly defining types of work through “clarifications in the measurement of working time, daily and weekly rest periods” and then focus on educating workers about what their rights are.

In other words, try to push the grays of current work into more of a black-and-white situation. And, in theory, give people their weekends and evenings back. ®

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