Legal

The right to disconnect: A European overview

What this means for employees in Europe.
December 17, 2021
Anne Bruijn
The right to disconnect: A European overview

An increase in digital technologies has changed the way employees carry out their work. Where, when, and how we work continues to evolve at an accelerating pace, and employers and employees alike are experiencing both challenges and benefits from these new ways of working. This includes remote and flexible working arrangements.

It's said that the new working world brings with it advantages like greater autonomy, better work-life balance, improved productivity, and environmental benefits. However, the widespread use of smartphones and other digital devices can create pressure for employees to be constantly accessible and may pose potential health issues, as well as causing work-life balance conflict linked to longer working hours.

The right to disconnect is considered to be a right of employees to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours. 

More employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand to address the issue for a right to disconnect. Several studies exist on this topic including one from Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The 70-page-long report published in September 2021 assesses the implementation of the right to disconnect and the evidence around its impact on employees.

Exploring the legal context

At the moment, there is no European legal framework directly defining and regulating the right to disconnect. The Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC) however, refers to a number of rights that indirectly relate to similar issues, like the minimum daily and weekly rest periods that are required in order to safeguard workers health and safety. Principles 9 (work-life balance) and 10 (health, safe and well-adapted work environment and data protection) of the European Pillar of Social Rights, as well as the Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers(2010/18/EU), touch the issue but do not specifically address the right to disconnect.

In January 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which called on the Commission to propose a law that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours. It should also establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods, without facing adverse consequences.

On a European national level, until August 2021, six EU Member States have implemented legislation including the right to disconnect, namely France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Slovakia and Greece.

In the Netherlands and Portugal, legislative proposals have been issued but have not been adopted at the moment. In Ireland, a code of practice on the right to disconnect has been issued. While workers don't have a legal right to disconnect, they can take action at the Labour Court of Workplace Relations Commission if they feel they have been penalized for refusing to work outside normal working hours. 

Luxembourg and Malta have initiated discussions on how to implement a right to disconnect. In Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Sweden, debates are taking place to what extent it is necessary to implement a right to disconnect. In Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, trade unions are addressing this issue in their respective countries.

In Denmark, no debate exists on the right to disconnect since this topic already is addressed through collective bargaining.

In the United Kingdom, no right to disconnect exists and the Working Time Regulations 1998, where employees may opt-out of the 48 hour work week, is not considered to be effective to endorse such a right. In the UK, the union called “Prospect” is urging the UK government to include legislation on the right to disconnect in the upcoming Employment Bill. Prospect also has published a guidance on negotiating workplace policies on employee rights to disconnect.

Seen the above, the right to disconnect is highly on the agenda in many European countries.

Looking ahead

How effective is legislation for a right to disconnect? Since the increasing discussions, employers may feel the pressure to act. A ‘soft’ approach to implementing a right to disconnect is generally favoured over a ‘hard’ approach. Hard approaches tend to decrease flexibility, as they have the effect of introducing rigid working hours and take the decision on whether or not to disconnect out of the worker's hands. Soft approaches are based on the ability of employers and employees to take responsibility that working remotely does not lead to over-connection and an extension of working hours.  Several practices may be considered:

  • Mental health awareness training and investigation of what makes employees reluctant to disconnect
  • Introducing flexible policies that reference the need to disconnect but also balances the needs and expectations of different employees
  • Introducing communication measures, such as reminders that messages do not require an answer outside of working hours
  • Encouraging employees to take their annual leave entitlement
  • Implementing time recording without compromising data protection requirements

At Oyster, we know what it is like to manage a globally distributed team and all the complications that come with cross-border employment. This includes the right to disconnect.

To learn more about right to disconnect legislation around the world, browse Oyster's global hiring guides.

Disclaimer: This blog and all information in it is provided for general informational purposes only. It does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or tax advice. You should consult with a qualified legal or tax professional for advice regarding any legal or tax matter and prior to acting (or refraining from acting) on the basis of any information provided on this website.

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