Right to disconnect? Higher protection of employees in sight
The European Parliament has asked the European Commission to submit a draft directive allowing employees to log off from work after working hours without being sanctioned for such behavior in any way. According to the parliament, the expansion of remote working has been connected with a need to be continuously on-line, negatively affecting the private lives of employees and increasing the risk of mental health problems.
Like other events of global significance, the current COVID-19 pandemic brought both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, employees may to a large extent work from their homes and fulfil their work tasks remotely using information and communication technologies, on the other hand, their private lives are being significantly affected. The need to be continuously on-line without being able to disconnect interferes with their private lives, which may result in depression, anxiety, burnout and other mental and physical health problems. Indeed, currently, more than 38% of the EU population is suffering from some sort of mental disorder, while increases in this percentage can be expected considering the growing popularity (or necessity) of home-office arrangements.
According to European statistics, the share of work that people do from home increased by almost 30% during the pandemic, whereas the probability that maximum working hours will be exceeded and the minimum time of rest between shifts as set out by appropriate directives will be shortened is twice as high for work from home. Moreover, almost 30% of employees regularly work in their free time. After considering the requirements for occupational health and safety and work-life balance, the European Parliament asked the European Commission to submit a draft directive setting the minimum conditions under which employees working remotely may log off and be unavailable (e.g. via email or phone) to their employers outside their working hours.
Whereas the right to disconnect has been honoured in France for more than 20 years and enacted or subject to extensive public discussion in many other EU countries, it has not been explicitly established within the EU, despite the fact that the EU founding treaties and the equally positioned EU Charter of Fundamental Rights stipulate that every employee has the right to working conditions that respect their health, safety and dignity and the right to maximum permissible working hours, time of rest and annual paid leave. The European Pillar of Social Rights (2017) also calls for support of innovative forms of work ensuring, inter alia, good-quality working conditions and a work-life balance.
The European Parliament’s initiative aims to establish, at the EU level, an employee’s right not to be harassed during their time of rest by business emails, phone calls and other work-related communication. Eventually, a working culture in which any impersonal work-related contact between the employer and the employee outside working hours is undesirable should be created at the EU level (and, through the directive’s implementation, at the level of EU member states). However, it is hard to estimate to what extent this right will be enforceable in practice, as the effect of information and communication technologies on people’s lives is continuously growing and the right to log off is rather an elusive concept.