Remote working has made it harder to separate our work and private lives.
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lawmakers in Europe are pushing to give online workers a fundamental ‘right to disconnect’ from the always-on culture of teleworking highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier in December, the European Parliament Employment Committee voted 31-to-6, with 18 abstentions, in favour of a new piece of legislation to give digital workers a right to switch off from work without having to worry about any repercussions from their employer.

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

The resolution seeks to end the unhealthy ‘always-on’ culture associated with teleworking where organisations expect their employees to be reachable at all times, and help ease the strain on remote workers struggling to define boundaries between work and home life.

Alex Agius Saliba, the Maltese socialist MEP who brought the resolution before EU lawmakers, argued that the shift to remote working during COVID-19 had highlighted the negative impact that this style of working has on mental and physical health, despite the obvious benefits it has brought in helping to limit the spread of the disease and improving flexibility for employees.

If the European Parliament rubber-stamps the proposal, workers in the EU would have the legal right to refrain from all work-related tasks, activities and communication — such as email and phone calls — outside their usual working hours, including during rest periods, annual holidays and any other forms of leave.

The legislation would be applicable to all European workers and would be based on a minimum set of requirements that could be adjusted by member states for different working scenarios — hybrid and remote-working agreements, for example.

Saliba told TechRepublic that the focus was not just on teleworkers, but all employees whose daily responsibilities involved interacting with electronic devices.

“This was not a legislative initiative that the European Parliament has come up with during the pandemic. Obviously, it has increased the number of teleworkers, and today there is bigger political push because there is more visibility when it comes to the culture of always being connected,” Saliba said.

“Our idea is that this is a universal right for all workers who have interaction with digital devices.”

Speaking after the vote on his report on 2 December, Saliba said the COVID-19 pandemic has “fundamentally changed the way we work” and that rules should be updated in order to “catch up with the new reality”.

In particular, Saliba argued, employees need new protections against the rise in mental health issues like burnout and depression that have occurred over the course of 2020, and to establish clear boundaries between work and home life, which he said “have become blurred.”

“For sure, telework has saved countless lives, but after months of teleworking, many workers are now suffering from negative side effects such as isolation, fatigue, depression, burnout, [and] muscular or eye illnesses,” he said.

“We want to make sure that digital tools are used as an asset benefitting employers and workers while their negative effects are mitigated.”

SEE: TechRepublic Premium editorial calendar: IT policies, checklists, toolkits, and research for download (TechRepublic Premium)

The positive and negative aspects of remote working have been discussed in relatively equal measure over the course of 2020, but after so many months of working from home, the strain is starting to show.

Studies show that people often work more hours while working from home, with commutes being replaced by meetings and calls and the expectation that employees are available at all times, making it harder to switch off at the end of the day. This, combined with the lack of social interactions and teamworking that made office life more rewarding, has led to a sharp increase in workers reporting depression, burnout and other mental health issues in 2020.

While the UK and EU countries currently operate under the Working Time Directive, which sets out certain rights around working hours and rest periods for employees, there currently is no definition of the right to disconnect from the digital aspects of work, or how workers can enforce it.

With this right enshrined into legislation, Saliba explained, employers would be contract-bound to give their employees appropriate rest time where they weren’t expected to be reachable, or to reply to work-based communications.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“For us, it’s an important point that ultimately, employers trust their workers to work from different places, not only from their offices,” said Saliba.

“Although [the Working Time Directive] is still relevant today, new realities — and one of the biggest realities is the digitalization of our workforce — should also be taken into consideration when it comes to non-working time and rest periods,” Saliba added.

The report still needs to be adopted by the full plenary of the European Parliament, which is scheduled for January 2021, before it can be taken up by the European Commission.

“It’s really important that these new phenomena that are revolutionizing not only our lives, but our workforce, should be taken into consideration so that we can have a more healthy workforce, and a workforce that will not continue to suffer from mental health issues, depression, and burnout, which have become commonplace,” Saliba said.

“This is why we call on the Commission to propose an EU right to disconnect for all European workers.”