The right to be unavailable outside of work hours is a human right. It is meant to help employees deal with the “tyranny of technology”. People should be able to balance their personal and professional life without risking stress, fatigue and/or burnout. This right should apply to all workers. 

France is a pioneering country in this field 

In August 2016, France adopted the El Khomri law (named after the then Minister of Labor), which allows employees the right to be unavailable outside of working hours. The law went into effect on  January 1, 2017, and since then, if a company does not comply, the employee can challenge them in court. Companies with more than 50 employees are required by law to arrange times in which their staff can turn off their phones.  Companies with fewer than 50 employees have fewer legal obligations and must manage things in-house. 

Imposing sanctions remains difficult 

In July 2018, a judge ruled against a company for unfairly forcing its employee to remain available. The employee involved could receive compensation of over 60,000 euros. The London-based Financial Times newspaper notes that working outside office hours is still common in many French companies. Due to a lack of insufficient rules, companies don’t feel the need to mandate strict working hours since they do not incur a fine. In addition, many employees do not dare to invoke this right because of the company culture and the fear of the possible consequences to their careers. 

The corona pandemic puts the discussion back on track

The right to be unavailable outside of working hours has become even more topical with the corona pandemic. It was even mentioned in the telework guide published by the French government in early May 2020. Because of the pandemic, employees are increasingly working from home. Companies increasingly expect their employees to always be available. Working from home has benefits, such as more flexibility and autonomy over working hours. But there are also risks: working online can blur the line between work and home and increase work pressure. A survey by Empreinte Humaine found that French workers’ stress levels have grown since Covid-19. Almost a third of workers developed signs of burnout, three times more than before the crisis.

Digital disconnection: will it become the norm in Europe?

After France took the lead, we now see the right to be unavailable outside of working hours being picked up in other European countries. Belgium, Greece, Italy, Slovakia, Portugal, and Spain have already established this right by law. For the Dutch employee, the Working Hours Act still applies, where everyone is entitled to 11 hours of rest after the end of their working day. Employees who earn more than 60,000 euros annually are excluded from this law. Even though it is precisely those in this category that work demanding jobs. In the Netherlands, a bill proposed by the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) was passed by the House of Representatives in June 2021. This bill intends to make it a legal requirement for employers and employees to make rules about (un)accessibility. 

Initially, the law was intended to take effect starting this year. However, this bill falls behind other countries. Belgian federal civil servants, for example, are no longer allowed to receive calls from their boss outside of working hours. There, working from home due to the coronal knockdowns was a significant reason for this decision.

European Parliament opts for new legislation

On Tuesday, July 5, 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution. This resolution states that workers across the EU have the right to be offline after working hours. In this way, employees, who are increasingly operating online since the corona pandemic, should be protected from technostress. In addition, the parliament believes there should be a broader EU strategy on mental health. It is now up to the European Commission and the member states to aid in parliament’s decision.

Sources

France, pioneer of the “right to disconnect: https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/vu-du-royaume-uni-la-france-pionniere-du-droit-a-la-deconnexion

The right to disconnect: what the Labor Code says: https://www.journaldunet.fr/management/guide-du-management/1201613-droit-a-la-deconnexion-code-du-travail-loi/

Parliament wants to guarantee the right to disconnect: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/fr/headlines/society/20210121STO96103/le-parlement-veut-garantir-le-droit-a-la-deconnexion

Could the right to disconnect become the norm in Europe?: https://fr.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/02/01/le-droit-a-la-deconnexion-pourrait-il-devenir-la-norme-en-europe

The right to be unreachable, does it exist? https://www.mannaertsappels.nl/recht-op-onbereikbaarheid-bestaat/ 

Euro parliament wants ‘right to disconnect’ for employees: https://www.binnenlandsbestuur.nl/carriere/ep-werknemers-moeten-recht-op-onbereikbaarheid-krijgen#:~:text=In%20theNetherlands%20there%20is%20still%20a%20right%20to%20reach%20out%20working hours.

Right to unreachability gains urgency through corona: https://fd.nl/economie/1412284/recht-op-onbereikbaarheid-wint-aan-urgentie-door-corona-lmg2cakJKLvl