Exploring workers’ right to disconnect

Exploring workers’ right to disconnect

In recent years, the way we work – and notably, where we work – has undergone a transformation. With the pandemic pushing many to embrace working from home, the events of the last years have led to a sustained increase in remote working activity. However, along with its benefits, remote work comes with challenges. Among them is the feeling held by many that such digital transformation is blurring work and private life. Here, Sarah Muscat Azzopardi combines valuable insights from experts and stakeholders.

It is undeniable that the ability to work seamlessly from home, as you would in the office, brings with it a host of pros. What is increasingly becoming evident, however, is a distinct con to digitalisation and remote working: the sense that employees can never really ‘switch off’ or disconnect.

While no European legal framework directly defining and regulating the right to disconnect currently exists, the recent European Social Partners Autonomous Framework Agreement on Digitalisation contains a full chapter on modalities for connection and disconnection from digital tools for work purposes. This certainly merits food for thought.

Acknowledging the opportunities and challenges brought about by the remote working scenario perpetuated by COVID-19, MBB EU Affairs Manager Daniel Debono affirms that while the benefits are widely known, the challenges related to remote working, such as burnout and the blurring of work and private life, are also worthy of consideration.

Pointing out that these issues also concern employers who fear the impact on productivity and quality of work, he notes, “as a starting point, the solution lies in the promotion and application of more positive work cultures in companies and the implementation of proactive human resources policies that are centred on flexibility, respect and trust, and that find the right balance in the relationship between employers and employees.”

Here, Mr Debono believes that the responsibility is a joint one, relating to both employers and employees. “From an employers’ perspective, allowing employees to work flexibly does not mean that all employees must be available to respond at all hours of the day,” he says, affirming that management must lead by example. “Sometimes it is also a matter of self-action. As digital applications nowadays provide a permanent connection to work through our phones, there are several measures that employees can take, including that of turning off notifications. This may sound simple, but it can make a big difference in avoiding work distractions during private leisure time,” he continues.

Another important aspect Mr Debono targets is the excessive use of digital tools in modern society. “While it is every individual’s right to choose how to spend private time, it is recognised that excessive use of technology can also lead to fatigue. Therefore, it is also an individual’s responsibility to find the right balance by including other leisure activities that do not depend on the use of technology,” he maintains.

Last month, The Malta Business Bureau (MBB) and The Malta Chamber, in association with the General Workers Union (GWU), held a webinar focusing on key topics from the EU autonomous framework agreement on digitalisation, which includes the right to disconnect. During the discussion, different views emerged on aspects of introducing the right to disconnect as dedicated national legislation.

During the webinar, a number of special guests were invited to share their expertise and experiences, including Mireille Pellegrini Petit from Thrive Positive, who spoke about the psychological impact of excessive use of technology; and Chris Busuttil Delbridge from Evolve, who shared best practices on implementing positive cultures at the workplace.

Agreeing that the digitalisation of work and workplace cultures of ‘constant connection’ have taken a toll on employees, Mireille Pellegrini Petit notes, “the average employee today is being regularly bombarded by digital distractions throughout their working day and beyond it. The result of these constant interruptions is a negative impact on their work outputs as well as on their physical and mental health.”

Compounded by the fact that employees have phones and computer access at home, she points out that employers often expect them to remain connected and answer emails and other communications outside of working hours too.

In her view, working from home has exacerbated the problem, with blurred boundaries between work and home life, and the necessity to shift from face-to-face meetings to online meetings, thus increasing digital connection times even further. “Today’s office workers spend much of their time on screens, with the average adult being logged on to their various screens for over 11 hours a day,” Ms Pellegrini explains, highlighting that there is a ‘dark side’ to the digitalisation of work and a human cost to being glued to our devices.

“Firstly we are seeing an increasing impact on employees’ mental health and wellbeing in the form of greater levels of stress, burnout, sleep disorders, anxiety and even depression,” she says, adding that the constant switching of screens and devices is resulting in a form of cognitive overload. “This has an impact on work, with consequent reduced levels of productivity, and lower job satisfaction and employee engagement levels,” she notes.

Advocating for the creation of policies, structures and frameworks that encourage healthy digital and work routines, Ms Pellegrini Petit says “the reality is that of course we cannot eliminate technology, but we can definitely support companies to create structures and guidelines to empower their people to use technology in the right way and for the right reasons.”

“Finally, employers should focus on creating cultures and workplace practices that are focused on improving wellbeing, which has the consequent benefits of increasing engagement, productivity, creativity and innovation,” Ms Pellegrini Petit says, arguing that it is vital that leaders model healthy digital and work routines as they set the tone for their direct reports. On the other hand, she continues, “employees also need education on ways to ‘switch off’ and the importance of this, both for their well being levels, as well as to increase their capacity to focus and produce good quality work.”

“The old adage that companies are made up of people and that employees are the foundations of any company have been verified through the ages and crystallised by the turn of events in the last couple of years,” says Christopher Busuttil Delbridge, weighing in on the subject.

As an employer, he makes a case for viewing employees as complete human beings, affirming that “investment in Positive Psychology workplace practices by certified professionals, mental health support and an investment in mindfulness in professional and personal lives, goes a long way to help individuals foster a winning workplace culture.”

Having said that, he is of the firm belief that the responsibility lies with both employer and employee. “Everyone is responsible for his/her mental health. One can never put that very important responsibility in the hands of someone else. On the other hand, caring for one another goes a long way. Many studies have shown that real appreciation and a culture of care is the biggest motivator for any employee.”

One of the questions raised in the webinar was whether the introduction of legislation on the Right to Disconnect is the right way to go. Speaking on the part of the MBB, Mr Debono favours more social dialogue and promotion of good practices within companies rather than a one-size-fits-all overly prescriptive legislation.

This is not to say that current regulatory frameworks could not improve, particularly if updated to address challenges brought about by the rapid digitalisation of the workplace, Mr Debono continues, going on to state that the role of social partners is critical to ensure the right balance.

Ms Pellegrini Petit is sceptical about legislation being the appropriate course of action, affirming that, “we need to better understand the complexities of this issue, undertake more research to investigate the way employees are using and connecting to technology, separate the positive impacts of technology from the negative ones, and properly diagnose what the problems are, before finding relevant and appropriate solutions.”

All things considered, she agrees that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Rather, it may be better to offer a more holistic, flexible approach to redesigning how we work that takes into account the nature of the work and the needs of different subgroups of workers. “We need to design work in a way that supports employees to work in the way that suits them best,” she maintains.

The focus, Ms Pellegrini Petit believes, should be on supporting companies to create cultures of well being and care where people are empowered to manage stress positively, do their best work, use technology in the most effective ways, and have non-digital spaces to reflect, design and connect, as well as to harness their attention effectively to get work done. “Ultimately work should be a rewarding experience that leaves employees energised, feeling they are making a valuable contribution, and prioritising time off from their digital screens to invest in their well being,” she says.

Mr Busuttil Delbridge shares this view, asserting, “no law ever stopped abusers.” In his view, “legislation alone is not the answer to a happier workplace or life. Trust and respect are.” Highlighting the fact that remote working, flexible hours and connectivity are interlinked, he states that much more needs to be done on this score to educate all stakeholders.

“We are so lucky to live in an age where technology allows for many jobs that can wrap themselves around our busy schedules,” he continues, referencing different lifestyles and needs. “Any legislation contrary to this request and movement must be very carefully explained and implemented so as not to invite backlash and stifle any progress in this sense. It must be carefully worded and used to protect the most vulnerable, while still empowering those that stand to benefit from alternative arrangements to traditional work practices.”