Can't escape work? Politicians want to give you a right to log off

The European Parliament is calling for an EU-wide law giving workers a right to disengage from work-related tasks outside of office hours.

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European politicians want to give remote workers a fundamental right to disengage from work.

Image: filistimlyanin, Getty Images/iStockphoto

European leaders have been urged to pass a new EU-wide law that grants remote workers the right to digitally disconnect from work, after members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.

The 'right to disconnect' seeks to provide respite from the always-on culture of working in the digital age, in which employees feel obliged to be easily-reachable at all times.

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MEPs are calling for new legislation that would grant digital workers a fundamental right to disengage from work-related calls, emails and messages outside of working hours. It also calls for the EU to establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods.

If passed in EU law, workers would be legally protected from any repercussions from employers for ignoring work-related tasks outside of their working hours, including holidays and other forms of leave.

The initiative was approved by the European Parliament last week (January 21), with 472 votes in favor, 126 against and with 83 abstentions.

Speaking ahead of the vote on his report, S&D MEP Alex Agius Saliba, said: "After working hours or while on holidays, workers must be able to switch off their phone or emails without fear of negative consequences. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update worker's rights to the new realities of the digital age."

A Eurofound study commissioned by the European Union in 2020 found that working from home had increased 30% since the outbreak of COVID-19, and that people who work from home regularly are more than twice as likely to work more than 48 hours per week – the maximum under EU law.

While remote working has been instrumental in safeguarding people and businesses during the pandemic, the combination of longer working hours and higher demands has led to a spike in anxiety, burnout and mental health issues.

A report from HubSpot this week found that 60% of UK workers feel that they need to be online and contactable at all times in order to prove to their managers that they are working, while 35% of remote workers have taken less than a week of leave since March 2020.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work," said Saliba.

"We cannot abandon millions of European workers, who keep going and do their jobs under the extremely difficult circumstances of the pandemic, but who are exhausted by the pressure to be always 'on' and the extended working hours."

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

France is considered somewhat of a leader in legally recognizing employees' right to disconnect. The country has had a national agreement in place since 2013 that encourages businesses to define periods when devices should be switched off, to prevent them from intruding on their private lives. 

Other countries, such as Italy, Spain and Belgium, have also taken steps toward setting out provisions that allow remote workers to disengage from work-related tasks outside of office hours.

If the European Commission approves the legislation, it could still take time for it to be passed into law – potentially at least three years, following a last-minute amendment to the proposal that called for the Commission to delay legislative action.

In a letter to MEPs on January 19, members of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and European Transport Workers' Federation (ETWF) called on MEPs to reject the amendment.  

"Workers are experiencing the problem right now and need solutions," it said.

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