High-performing organizations feature engaged workforces that are motivated by the connection employees feel towards their work, teams, leadership, and organization as a whole. And the digital technologies that are a central part of modern life can strengthen that connection while giving employees greater flexibility in when and where they perform their work. For this greater connectivity to promote positive engagement, employees also need to know that they can safely disconnect and recharge, which is only possible when organizations communicate reasonable expectations around working outside of normal working hours, including monitoring and responding to communications (emails, chats, posts, etc.).

France was the first nation to specifically address the increasingly blurry line between working and non-working time in the “digital age” by introducing a legal “right to disconnect.” They pioneered what is now a legislative trend spanning nearly every continent, and which has taken on renewed vigor since Covid-19 made teleworking a routine part of global work culture. Whether mandated by law or not, giving employees the ability to disconnect is key to an effective wellbeing strategy that drives productivity, increases job satisfaction, and improves employee retention. Like any good wellbeing strategy, it should be designed with employees’ needs in mind, directly linked to organizational culture, and endorsed in a credible way by leadership.

The right to disconnect: a growing trend around the world

Right to disconnect legislation has been enacted in many countries since France first established its legal framework in the El Khomri law of 2017. The law does not introduce an absolute right to disconnect after working hours but instead mandates a dialogue between employees and employers on the use of digital communication after working hours. The intention is to give employers enough flexibility to adapt the requirements of this right to the needs of their business and operations. However, noncompliance could trigger consequences in the form of overtime or labor harassment claims.

It is useful to take a closer look at the approach since it serves as a model for many other countries’ laws. Companies with at least 50 employees are required to hold an annual negotiation meeting with employee representatives to establish internal regulations in the form of a charter for the reasonable use of digital communication after working hours. In addition to establishing the general parameters, the charter must also outline awareness communications, training, technical and practical measures for how to disconnect, and compensation where exceptions are made.

Other countries, such as Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Luxembourg have adopted similar approaches through specific legislation on the right to disconnect for all employees, whether they work remotely or in the office. Fines may be imposed for an employer’s failure to comply with the legislation or for a breach of the duty to respect the right to disconnect.

The rapid shift to remote working has led countries such as Argentina, Angola, Austria, Chile, Greece, Slovakia, Thailand, Romania, and others to include similar language in their remote work legislation. In those countries, however, the right to disconnect needs to be negotiated only for remote workers.

Employment law experts from Ius Laboris have compiled a map showing the countries that currently regulate this right.

Map: Occupational Health & Safety Expert Group, Ius Laboris Get the data Created with Datawrapper

Recognition of a right to disconnect can be seen in a continuum with other recent legislation intended to protect work-life balance and promote family-friendly working environments. While the European Union (EU) has not yet enshrined a right to disconnect for its member nations, the right to disconnect is on the agenda.

Regardless of geography, many leading companies, especially multinationals looking to stay ahead of evolving local legislation, are creating their own internal policies to address the work-life balance needs of their employees and improve their wellbeing.

Promoting wellbeing through right to disconnect policies

Despite the increasing focus on health and wellbeing since the Covid-19 pandemic and the exponential rise in remote working, most corporate wellbeing programs and right to disconnect policies are not hitting the mark, making them an inefficient use of company resources. Policies and programs that don’t address root causes of employee issues, that are not be valued by employees, or that employees are not even aware of, risk falling into the “wellbeing washing” trap.

As with any workplace wellbeing initiative, effective implementation, communication, and high engagement with the workforce are critical to success. Whether legally mandated or benevolently adopted, a right to disconnect policy will only be effective at reducing unnecessary out-of-hours working (or stressing about work) if workplace conditions and culture are fully aligned.

When implementing a right to disconnect policy, there are a number of factors to consider:

  • It is imperative to address root causes of unhealthy work practices by managing optimal workload and helping employees develop time management skills.
  • Individual responsibility and accountability are crucial. Managers must lead by example, and employees themselves must adopt better digital habits and work practices with organizational support.
  • Structural realities need to be proactively addressed, such as situations where a work and personal phone are on the same device, making it too easy to flip between profiles or to see work notifications popping up on screen. It is human nature to check emails out of curiosity, fear, anxiety, or even with a clear purpose in mind despite policy.
  • Breaking deeply engrained habits and behaviors is difficult. Small steps implemented over time are required (such as regularly switching off the work profile at end of day).
  • Communication is key to driving workforce engagement. How a policy is communicated plays a decisive role in its adoption and ability to deliver an overall solution.  More than an email or poster is needed. Communication should be multichannel and occur on a regular basis to truly bring it to life in a way that resonates with employees.

In the end, organizations must adopt a culture that genuinely seeks to improve the wellbeing of their people, and that culture must permeate all levels of the organization. Organizational culture will trump any policy, and if the perceived or actual cultural reality is that out-of-hours working is tacitly expected despite a stated policy, the policy will feel like “wellbeing washing.”

Management transparency, trust in all layers of management, a strong employee voice, and employee participation in policy changes will all serve to bolster the successful implementation of any policy—including one that addresses optimal employee connectivity and work-life balance. It will also be the surest way to ensure compliance with this expanding legislative trend.

Useful resources:

Lockton Global News: https://globalnews.lockton.com/?s=%22right+to+disconnect%22

Ius Laboris : https://iuslaboris.com/insights/laws-on-the-right-to-disconnect/

In collaboration with:

Tom Curran

Head of Wellbeing

Lockton Ireland