The Right to Disconnect: Finding the optimal balance between work and life
Two decades ago, it was considered exceptional for an employer to contact an employee outside of their working hours, and even more so during weekends or holidays. In the last years however, the advent of digital technology and the increased use of homeworking have dramatically transformed the way we work. While these advancements have clearly positively impacted workers’ efficiency and productivity, they have also blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, leading to potential negative consequences for employees’ well-being. In response to these challenges, the concept of the “right to disconnect” has emerged as a crucial topic of discussion.
At Generations Recruitment, our mission is to create sustainable connections between talented employees and inspiring organizations. In this article, we will help you understand the essence of the right to disconnect, and its role in creating a better work-life balance, and hence, a higher engagement at work.
Understanding the Right to Disconnect
The right to disconnect can be defined as the workers’ right to not engage in work-related activities (for example emails, phone calls or text messages) during after-work hours. In essence, it advocates for the (re-)establishment of clear boundaries between work and private life, fostering a healthier work-life balance.
The Impact of the Always-Connected Culture
When the pandemic pushed work into our homes, it became more difficult to clearly see the boundary between home life and work life. Many people started becoming available almost 24/7, and “leaving work problems at work” became much harder when work was taking place… in your living room.
In parallel, the proliferation of smartphones, emails, and other digital platforms made it increasingly difficult to detach from professional concerns, as we are continuously bombarded with notifications and messages.
As this became the norm, expectations around when you do work also changed. A lot of people felt obligated to answer emails or phone calls even after they had already put in a full day’s work, making it more and more difficult to disconnect.
This “always-connected” culture has several adverse effects on employees. Firstly, the constant pressure to be available, even during off-hours, deprives individuals of much-needed restful time, resulting in exhaustion, stress and reduced productivity during working hours.
“The lack of separation between work and private life is a source of burnout, which is one of the most common causes of long-term absence.”, according to Alexandre Sutherland from the trade union ACLVB-CGSLB.1
Indeed, as stated by The Brussels Time, the number of workers who have been on sick leave for over a year due to depression or burnout has risen by 45% between 2017 and 2022. This represents a tremendous cost for the hiring company and puts a strain on the remaining employees who must take over the missing employee’s workload. It is thus a lose-lose situation for both the employee and the employer.
Secondly, the right to disconnect is closely linked to other mental health concerns. Employees who are unable to disengage from work find it challenging to relax and recharge, leading to increased anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. Moreover, the blurring of boundaries hinders employees from engaging in activities that promote well-being, such as spending quality time with family, pursuing hobbies, or participating in physical exercise.
Most employers assume, incorrectly, that the more their employees work, the more output they will get out of their activities. The reality is quite different, in fact : ‘an increasing body of evidence underlines that the effects of a reduction of regular long working hours include positive impacts on workers’ physical and mental health, improved workplace safety and increased labour productivity due to reduced fatigue and stress, higher levels of employee job satisfaction and motivation and lower rates of absenteeism. Appropriate government policies to limit excessively long working hours are an important feature of any legal framework on working time and these also exist in most European countries at both the country level and at the supranational level in the form of the EU Working Time Directive’. (Messenger, ILO).2
Recognizing the Right to Disconnect
In response to the negative impact of an always-connected culture, several countries and companies have taken steps towards recognizing and implementing the right to disconnect. France became a pioneer in 2017 by passing a law that grants employees the legal right to ignore work-related emails and messages during non-working hours. Other European countries have since followed, with Italy, Spain, and Belgium introducing similar legislation.
In Belgium, companies with more than 20 employees had until April 1 2023 to implement their right to disconnect policy, which represents one of four pillars in a 2022 federal government labor deal.
Challenges and opposition
While the idea behind the Right to Disconnect policies is clear and seems beneficial for the workers’ wellbeing, in practice, it also faces some challenges.
First of all, in Belgium, this new legislation only applies to some workers and some companies. For example, companies with under 20 employees are not legally required to have relevant agreements in place. In addition, the legislation only introduces a theoretical, general framework for a right to disconnect, leaving Belgian companies with a lot of questions and a lot of work to implement it and set out practical arrangements.
Critics also argue that it could lead to decreased flexibility in work arrangements, especially for those who prefer a more fluid schedule. Additionally, certain industries, such as emergency services and healthcare, require employees to be on call, making it difficult to apply the right to disconnect to all.
Moreover, some employers worry that the right to disconnect could create complications in global businesses, where employees work across different time zones. Finding a balance that respects employees’ rights while ensuring the smooth functioning of the organization remains a significant challenge.
Lastly, some employers will most likely want to play the devil’s advocate, claiming that if their employees want to be able to disconnect completely after-hours, they should then be fully invested in their work during work hours, without personal distractions… Would that be possible nowadays?
How and why should you encourage your workers to disconnect
Whether or not your organization has a formal policy around the right to disconnect, you can always encourage workers to disconnect with the following ideas:
1. Offer flexibility
Offer your workers flexibility when it comes to the hours they work and how they work. Some workers will be more alert and productive in the morning, for example, and should be allowed to work when their brain is functioning at its highest. Some people work better alone at home while others prefer to have a completely separate space for work. By being able to choose how they work, they are more likely to find a rhythm that works for them. Creating flexible time off policies can also allow workers to go to the doctor when needed rather than putting it off so that they do not have to call in sick or take a vacation day.
2. Foster a culture of open communication and trust
Employers must strive to promote open communication about workload and expectations. If your employees know they can be open about their struggles, it will reduce their stress and avoid procrastination. Communicating openly favorizes mutual trust, that will give your employees more autonomy in their work and enhance their problem-solving skills.
3. Lead by example
If you are trying to get your workers to disconnect after regular working hours, you must do the same. Employees need to know that they will not get in trouble if they do not respond to an email right away, so practicing what you preach can be very important.
4. Encourage boundaries
Make sure that your workers know that they do not have to respond to each message or email right away if it is not urgent. Also, make sure that you respect their boundaries. For example, if a worker is taking their lunch break, do not go up to them and ask about a work assignment. Utilizing features such as “Do Not Disturb” settings on devices or turning off work-related notifications during non-working hours can be effective in maintaining healthy boundaries.
5. Engage in regular team building
Having a team that you can rely upon makes you more likely to feel like you can disconnect from work as not everything rests on your shoulders. Having the ability to ask for help when needed is also key, as employees need to know they can ask others for support if needed. To do this, try introducing ice breakers at the beginning of meetings so that people can get to know each other on a different level.
6. Educate your employees and managers
Providing training and concrete resources on time management and stress reduction can also be beneficial.
By implementing these examples in your organization, you will be able to foster an environment where people feel able to disconnect without judgement. By recognizing the importance a healthy work-life balance, employers and society can mitigate the negative effects of constant connectivity on employees’ well-being, and aim to boost their morale and increase overall productivity.
Striking a balance that respects the needs of both employers and employees will pave the way for a more sustainable and productive workforce, where individuals can thrive both professionally and personally – and their hiring companies will only benefit from this change.