Technostress – Right to disconnect?

Over the years, the dividing line between work life and private life has become thinner and thinner. Employees tend to feel the pressure to be always on, including during weekends and holidays. Innovations such as smartphones and smart watches allow employees to get messages, calls, or emails constantly, making it difficult to fully disconnect from work. This strain on employees has even led to the introduction of the term technostress.

Indeed, recent studies lead to the same conclusion: being always online can bring about serious issues. These issues can include burnouts, stress, problems in relationships, a decrease in productivity at work and absenteeism. A recent study conducted by TNO shows that 36% of absences due to sickness is related to work stress, and that one million Dutch people suffer from burnout complaints.

Proposed Right to Disconnect

The Labour Party (PvdA) announced that it would like to introduce legislation guaranteeing employees a right to disconnect. According to this proposal, employees must be allowed to completely disconnect from work, outside working hours.

Both the EU Working Time Directive and the Dutch Working Hours Act, which aim to lay down minimum safety and health requirements for organizing working time, entitle employees to a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours. The Labour Party proposes to make it a legal right for employees not to respond to email, phone calls or messages from their managers or colleagues outside working hours. Where the Working Hours Act currently applies only to employees earning less than € 60,000 per year (three times the statutory minimum wage), the Labour Party proposal would apply the right to disconnect to all employees.

Right to Disconnect in France

The discussion on the right to disconnect is not new. In fact, France has implemented a right to disconnect in its Labour Code in 2016, after much discussion. Companies in France are required to negotiate and agree with their employees on their right to be disconnected.

However, contrary to common belief abroad, the French right to disconnect is not as strong as it often is portrayed in the press (Fake news, so to speak). Our French colleagues separated fact from fiction in an earlier article on this matter. Indeed, the French law does not prohibit employers or employees from sending emails, or answering phone calls outside working hours. Rather, it creates an obligation for companies with at least 50 employees to negotiate with staff representatives and trade unions on the periods during which the employee will be granted time offline.

If no collective bargaining agreement can be reached, the employer must provide a code of conduct or policies setting forth the terms and conditions under which employees can exercise their right to disconnect. For instance, instead of sending an email outside working hours, one could suspend the delivery of an email by using the delayed send function, which would hold the email and send it in the morning.

There is no penalty for non-compliance with this French law. Nonetheless, an employer might be held liable for the consequences of excessive workload, burnout, moral harassment, etc., which may entitle employees to claim damages.

Is the Right to Disconnect Necessary?

We will have to see whether a legislation to safeguard this right to disconnect will be implemented in the law. In any event, one could question whether this law would be necessary. Various (international) companies have taken the initiative themselves to implement offline time in their organization. BMW and Volkswagen have already introduced policies to prevent their employees from being “always available”. Lidl Belgium and Luxemburg went even further, delaying internal emails sent after 6 pm until 7 am the next day, until Monday if sent on Friday after 6 pm.

Millennials tend to care much more about work-life balance than previous generations. Even if not legally obligated to recognize a right to disconnect, companies ignoring technostress might face serious hiring challenges in the future.

Astrid Joseph & Eric van Dam