The right to separation could become the norm in Europe
DUBLIN – With more people working from home than ever before, it is time for a Europe-wide regulation on the “right to separation”.
So says Alex Agius Saliba, a Maltese legislator in the European Parliament who is leading efforts on the issue.
The right to interrupt refers to rules that state that an employee should not be expected to handle calls and emails or communications with their supervisors outside of working hours.
In January, a majority of EU politicians backed a legislative initiative to ask the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, to draft a bloc-wide directive on the issue.
“The political boost is there because the visibility of overwork and this blurring between work and private time continued to blur during the pandemic due to the increase in the number of teleworkers, smart working, flexi-working. So something has to be done.” “Agius Saliba told CNBC.
The idea of the right to separation has gained momentum since the beginning of the pandemic, with large parts of the workforce working outside of the office, often at home.
Coupled with an always-on culture around smartphones and constant access to business email, this can upset the work-life gap and lead managers to email beyond work hours.
Companies and individual countries have been looking for ways to address this problem over the years.
As early as 2012, the car manufacturer Volkswagen had blocked certain employees from accessing e-mails from evening to morning.
In 2017, France introduced regulations that put tighter limits on the start and end of a teleworker’s obligations. In 2018, pest control company Rentokil was fined 60,000 euros ($ 71,000) for violating these rules.
Earlier this year, Ireland introduced a disconnection code of conduct for all workers, which allows complaints to be directed to a dispute resolution body in the workplace.
In the UK, however, the trade union congress calls for the country to follow suit.
“We all need a good work-life balance with some reasonable downtime. But today’s technology can easily blur the line between work and home without lessening the stress at work,” said Frances O’Grady, General Secretary, TUC CNBC.
“The unions in France, Germany and Ireland have already fought for the right to segregate workers.
Whether codes of conduct or fully fledged laws, employers have tough questions when it comes to implementing rules for the right to separation.
Be Kaler Pilgrim, founder of recruiting agency Futureheads, told CNBC that tech solutions, like limiting emails, wouldn’t just solve the problem.
Building a culture that takes work-life balance into account can be much more difficult. Employees in their organization are encouraged to schedule emails to arrive in coworkers’ inboxes during work hours rather than 24/7 emails.
“That cultural language of ‘switching off is okay’ is the one that’s harder to pin down,” she said. “It’s about persistence and recognizing when people are stressed, not taking those breaks and trying to fit too much into their day.”
According to John Lamphiere, regional vice president for EMEA and APAC for software company ActiveCampaign, implementing these initiatives is more difficult for companies with international locations in multiple time zones.
There are cohorts within ActiveCampaign’s European workforce who work regularly with colleagues in the US and Asia and require late and early working hours.
According to Lamphiere, an important part of the right to interrupt the discussion is to give employees the freedom to work as they please.
ActiveCampaign is currently developing a company-wide policy on best practices, but Lamphiere said it will not impose strict rules as there must be a “trust element” there as well.
“If we issue very strict rules, then that negates flexibility because it cannot be both.”
Emma Russell, a lecturer in industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Sussex, UK, told CNBC that strict rules can create problems of your own.
Russell wrote a paper in early 2020 examining the various implications of the Worker’s Right to Separation Policy.
“Some of the previous attempts to apply segregation policies have been pretty tough in the sense that companies have cut off access to email servers,” she said.
“While it is obviously well-intentioned that people want to leave their work, there are certain groups where this will not be a suitable mechanism for them.”
A consistent policy, especially measures like blocking access to email accounts, can be potentially harmful because it doesn’t take into account the flexibility some people want or need.
As an example, Russell cited a caregiver who prefers to structure his workday in a certain way.
“This idea of a uniform guideline where you just say at 6 p.m., we’ll turn off the e-mail, that’s not very helpful for people who lead a different life, have different responsibilities and have to be much more flexible in their work”, said Russell.
“If we want to promote a more inclusive and diverse workforce, then this is it [about] try to accommodate the needs of these different groups. “
Agius Saliba said the EU-wide law proposed by lawmakers would set basic and minimum requirements with flexibility according to the needs of different industries and sectors.
The problem of overwork and permanent work culture was there prior to the pandemic, he added, and the problem will continue to accelerate in the workplace after Covid, be it with office workers or teleworkers.
“I believe that teleworking will be a reality that will continue to grow even after the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Therefore, as the European Union, we need to be prepared when it comes to teleworking legislation, when it comes to it to level the playing field between the conditions of office workers and the conditions of teleworkers, “he said.
“Fundamental rights of workers should be exercised by every single worker.”