Right to disconnect
For several years now, I’ve tried not to text or email work colleagues after office hours, weekends, holidays, and during their vacations. I also explain, to new staff, that I borrowed that policy from the French, who, in 2017, incorporated provisions in their labor law about the “right to disconnect” electronically from work, i.e., not be penalized for not replying to email or text outside of office hours.
The French provisions are sometimes called the El Khomri Law, because they came about after the French Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri commissioned a study that found serious “info obesity,” a continuing bombardment of obligations on employees that were causing serious stress, even burnout.
Several countries, mainly European, have similar legal provisions, most of which leave it to employees to negotiate with employers on specific measures. The French require this right to disconnect provision only for companies with 50 or more employees while in Spain, the “derecho a la desconexion digital” is part of the country’s Data Provision Act of 2018 and was intended mainly to protect call center workers, something very relevant for the Philippines with our huge outsourcing sector.
Germany does not have such a law, but several large companies—Volkswagen is one of them—have something more drastic, which is to block company servers at night and weekends, forcing everyone to take some rest from the office internet.
And, guess what? I found out that in January 2017, House Bill No. 4721 was filed with “right to disconnect” provisions. The bill does not seem to have passed, but in February 2017, the Department of Labor and Employment’s then Secretary Silvestre Bello III did issue a memo declaring that employees who ignore work-related emails or texts outside of office hours should not be subject to disciplinary action. I doubt if the memo’s provisions are being enforced.
All these developments are not surprising, given how intrusive the internet has become when it comes to our private time. Don’t think it’s just staff being harassed by bosses. As someone on the management or administrative end in educational institutions, I’ve found myself having to be on the alert 24/7, especially with the way student, faculty, and staff emergencies prop up at the unholiest hours and times.
Moreover, in our globalized times, I find myself having to attend meetings with fellow administrators, faculty, and researchers from throughout the world. Just a few minutes ago, I confirmed a Zoom meeting with international colleagues for Thursday, 7 a.m. Philippine time, which is Wednesday, 5 p.m. Mexico time. Mexico or Manila, our meeting is definitely outside of office hours, but that was the only common time we could find.
That was a fairly simple meeting to work out. I’ve had other meetings with participants in every continent of the world except Antarctica, spanning several time zones.
If we are to have a “right to disconnect” law, it should be one that does not go into too much detail. It could spell out the right to disconnect in a wider context of the right of all people to rest from work, and to name the different circumstances when a break—holiday, weekend, vacation—is considered sacred. The law would also recognize the need, for many types of work, for example in health care, to be able to respond to emergencies. Likewise, provisions should be made for financial compensation for such work, as one does for overtime.
Another model would be Ontario’s law requiring employees to have a written policy on work and off-work hours including, incidentally, provisions for adequate time for meals and for commuting to and from work.
In the absence of such a law, it would do well for all offices to come to a consensus about how we should respect each other’s need for balancing work and life and being clear about it, for example, adding a footer in all our own emails declaring that respect, even informally like “No need to answer this until Monday.”
When you think about it, we should have this right to disconnect as well with friends, including the special ones in our life: “We love each other, passionately, but let’s not breathe down each other’s neck 24/7.”
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