Right to disconnect: Why working late is becoming a thing of the past in Belgium – The European Sting – Critical News & Insights on European Politics, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Business & Technology

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Writer, Formative Content

  • The rapid switch to remote working during the pandemic has made the line between home life and working hours unclear.
  • Many remote workers feel they need to be available at all times.
  • But answering calls and messages after office hours are over can lead to stress and burnout.
  • Several countries in Europe have put legislation in place to allow employees to disconnect.

A new law passed in Belgium allows civil servants to switch off work emails, texts and phone calls received out of hours, without fear of reprisals.

For many people, the pandemic-induced shift to remote working has blurred the line between home and work life, leaving them answering calls, texts and emails at all hours.

The legislation comes into effect on 1 February 2022 to protect the country’s 65,000 public-sector employees from exposure to being permanently on-call, although out-of-hours contact is permissible in exceptional circumstances. Plans are being discussed to extend the new laws to employees in the private sector.

It is hoped the new rules will help prevent burnout and reinforce the importance of establishing a work life balance, Belgium’s Public Administration Minister Petra De Sutter told the BBC.

Remote and disconnected

Some of the social changes brought about by the pandemic have redefined how and where many people work. And remote working has proved popular, leaving many people reluctant to return to full-time in-person office work.

More than 80% of Belgian employees – including 40% in managerial positions – across different parts of the economy said they would prefer to work from home at least two days each week, a national survey shows.

The lure of home office is reflected in other parts of the world, too. A survey of North Americans by job-listings site Flexjobs, found 65% of people who switched to remote working during the pandemic would prefer to keep working from home.

Workers want to stay put in home office.
A survey found almost two-thirds of North Americans want to continue working from home after the pandemic.

Almost three in five respondents said they would look for a new job if their current employer forced a return to the office. Just 2% said they would prefer to return to pre-pandemic full-time office life.

The absence of a commute and the expense associated with it were cited as key benefits of working from home, but working remotely is not without its drawbacks. More than a third of respondents said they found it difficult to unplug.

COVID, workers, well, health

What is the Forum doing about keeping workers well?

Keeping workers well. It is the united aim of a global community influencing how companies will keep employees safe. What is the role of COVID-19 testing? What is the value of contact tracing? How do organizations ensure health at work for all employees?

Members from a diverse range of industries – from healthcare to food, utilities, software and more – and from over 25 countries and 250 companies representing more than 1 million employees are involved in the COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative. Launched in July 2020, the project is a partnership between the World Economic Forum and Arizona State University with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

The COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative leverages the Forum’s platforms, networks and global convening ability to collect, refine and share strategies and approaches for returning to the workplace safely as part of broader COVID-19 recovery strategies.

Companies can apply to share their learnings and participate in the initiative as a partner, by joining the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare.

Learn more about the impact.

Belgium is the latest European country to offer employees a legal right to switch off once the workday is done.

The European Union (EU) defines the right to disconnect as “a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours”.

And while this right has not yet passed into EU law, a resolution passed in January 2021 called for an EU directive to be established.

This follows moves by several member states to establish legal precedents. France, seen by many as the pioneer in this area, enacted legislation in August 2016 allowing employees to switch off phones and other devices outside of set working hours. Companies with 50+ employees are obliged to draw up a “charter of good conduct” setting specific hours when staff can’t send or receive emails.

Portugal labels its work-life balance legislation the “right to rest”, with companies of 10 or more staff facing fines for contacting staff outside of set working hours. Workers with children below the age of eight are also permitted to work remotely under the new laws, which came into effect in November 2021.

Aside from legislation, a number of large companies have taken the initiative to protect their workers with multinational agreements supporting employees’ right to disconnect.

It seems that while laptops, tablets and smartphones allow us to communicate with anyone, anywhere and at any time, greater efficiency, reduced stress and a better work-life balance rests on us knowing when to switch them off.

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