Ireland has passed new government guidance that gives all employees a fundamental ‘right to disconnect’ from work-related duties when they’re off the clock.

Ireland’s government-operated Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has published a new code of practice that grants employees the ‘right to disconnect’ from work-related tasks outside of their regular working hours.

The guidance was introduced on 1 April and mandates that all employees, regardless of whether they are working remotely or in an office, have the right to switch off at the end of the day without being required to respond to emails, calls, text messages or other work-related communications.

The code gives the right to an employee to not have to routinely perform work outside their normal working hours; the right not to be penalized for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; and the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect – for example, by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours.

It was signed off by Ireland’s Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and employment minister, Leo Varadkar, who has also opened a consultation on how a right for employees to request remote working can be enshrined into Irish law.

“The pandemic has transformed working practices, and many of those changes will be long-lasting,” said Varadkar.

“Although much of the impact of the pandemic has been negative, particularly for those who have lost jobs, income or whose businesses have been closed, it also offers an opportunity to make permanent changes for the better, whether that’s working more from home, having more time with the family, or more flexible working hours.”

Best practice for employers and employees

The right to disconnect is intended to support existing legislation in Ireland around employer and employee’s rights and obligations, with the objective of helping both parties “in navigating an increasingly digital and changed working landscape that often involves remote and flexible working.”

It also aims to provide assistance to employees who feel obligated to routinely work longer hours than those agreed in their employment contract.

While failure to uphold a right to disconnect is not a criminal offence, under Irish law a code of practice is admissible as evidence in court.

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In his footnote in the WRC guidance, Liam Kelley, director general, said implementing policies and procedures to preserve employee’s rights were key to ensuring that both employers and employees got the most out of the new working environments that had emerged over the past year.

“While different working arrangements may suit different employees within their respective business environments, the right to be able to maintain clear boundaries between work and leisure is universal,” Kelly said.

While Ireland’s new code sets best practice for employers, it notes that employees also have a responsibility to draw lines in the sand to ensure their own wellbeing, as well as those of their colleagues, by disengaging from work.

“Disconnecting from work and work-related devices necessitates a joint approach by employers and employees,” said Kelly.

“While placing the onus of management of working time on the employer is appropriate, individual responsibility on the part of employees is also required.”

Remote working burnout

Remote working has been deemed a success in many regards. However, extended bouts of working from home during the pandemic have exacerbated issues around work-life balance for those whose professional and private lives are no longer separated by a daily commute.

Other countries have also taken a step towards introducing a right to disconnect. In January, European leaders voted in favor of a proposal that would offer similar rights across the entire EU.

The resolution seeks to address the ‘always-on’ culture associated with teleworking, which has peaked during the pandemic and led to higher rates of burnout and mental-health problems amongst digital professionals.

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Andrew Pakes, research director of UK worker’s union Prospect, said evidence was mounting that the rise of remote-working technology was taking a toll on mental health and that UK law needed to “evolve and keep pace with the reality of the way technology has changed working practices.”

Pakes told TechRepublic: “Around the world governments are waking up to this problem and taking action, by introducing laws requiring employers to speak to their workforce and agree sensible rules that enable them to switch off from work.

“Ireland has become the latest country to get on board with this, thanks to a fantastic campaign run by Irish trade unions. With an Employment Bill about to be announced in the Queen’s Speech, it is time for the government to listen to the evidence and introduce a UK Right to Disconnect, so that workers can reclaim a sense of division between work and home life.”

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