Right to Disconnect Laws: Are They Coming to the US?
With remote and hybrid working fast becoming the norm, the lines between personal and professional are blurring. Recognizing that some employees are now checking into the office outside their scheduled business hours, many countries are considering or have already enshrined a ‘right to disconnect’ into their employment law.
The right to disconnect essentially means employees aren’t beholden to their employers outside of work time - they don’t have to check or respond to emails, take phone calls, or do any other kind of work-related activity when they’re “off the clock.”
Which countries have a right to disconnect law?
Europeans were the earliest adopters of the legislation, beginning with France in 2017 and spreading to Spain, Ireland, and Italy by the end of 2021.
One of the most recent iterations on this side of the Atlantic is Ontario’s right to disconnect law, which came into effect in June as part of the Working for Workers Act. The Act requires companies with over 25 employees to have a written policy that gives staff the ability to ignore work outside of office hours.
Already, the legislation has ignited controversy, with some legal commentators calling it “procedural rigmarole” and suggesting that it’s purely a bureaucratic exercise without any real substance.
Similar provisions have yet to make it to the United States, but there is a movement in that direction with California among the first states to consider it.
Respecting an employee’s personal time is clearly the right thing to do. Even the most zealous managers would agree that forcing their team to work unpaid overtime is unreasonable. But legislating this common sense approach is a big move, and one that not every employee may welcome. Here we break down the pros and cons of right to disconnect laws.
Burnout is a growing problem in the workplace, affecting 76% of US workers, and the inability to switch off from work is a major contributing factor.
Protects employees from unethical employers
Not every company respects their employee’s personal time. Some are too focused on their bottom line. With many firms still struggling to return to profitability after the pandemic, workers can be pressured into being available any time they’re needed.
Helps remote workers set boundaries
When your office is essentially your living room, it’s hard to distinguish between work and home. Remote employees need a little more support to establish and maintain those boundaries, and a right to disconnect law can help them do that.
Legislation as a band-aid, not a cultural shift
Mandating the right to disconnect shifts the focus from companies to government - legislating an area that may be better dealt with at the employer level. A more grassroots approach would involve encouraging and promoting better company culture by introducing changes across the board, rather than singling out just one aspect of employee wellness.
Removes employee choice
In the past year, one particular aspect of workplace culture has come to the forefront - flexibility. Workers want the ability to manage their own time and the right to disconnect laws threaten that freedom.
People work differently. Some prefer to take breaks during the day to spend time with family and recoup that time later when there are less distractions. Others are early birds, who like to get a few hours in before the rest of the team come online. Mandating when employees can and can’t plug into the office strips them of that choice.
The right to disconnect is too broad & ill-defined
One of the most compelling criticisms of the Ontario law is that it’s too vague to be of much use. There are still many unanswered questions such as, what if there’s an after hours emergency? What constitutes work-related activity? What’s the penalty for employers if they break the policy? How is it enforced?
If the legislation is going to work as intended, it needs to be clearly defined so everyone knows where they stand.
The discussion over right to disconnect laws has opened up conversations about company culture, employee wellbeing, and burnout. But that awareness was largely already there.
The turbulence of the last few years has sparked a major shift in how we work, changing the employee-employer dynamic and forcing companies to reexamine their role in employee wellness. Most businesses now understand the dangers of burnout and the need to cultivate healthier, more sustainable, ways of working.
Any legislation therefore risks playing catch-up. The laws so far appear to favor a heavy-handed approach that needs to be carefully implemented to deliver real benefits.
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