Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.
What Is the Right to Disconnect?
Ever been bothered by the fact that technology has made us more reachable than ever before?
The perks of connectivity are obvious, but with most good things come annoying consequences, the “price to pay” for the convenience we’ve carved out for ourselves. The right to disconnect has gained momentum in the last few years, with France enacting a law supporting it as early as 2016, and with Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) publishing a Code of Practice for employers and employees on the right to disconnect on April 2021.
What exactly is the right to disconnect?
Ireland’s WRC defines it as “an employee’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications such as emails, telephone calls or other messages, outside normal working hours.”
In other words, the right to disconnect means that an employee shouldn’t have to respond to emails, chats, Slack messages, texts, calls, etc., when they’re off work.
Believe me; it would have made a lot of sense two or three decades ago if any lawmaker passed something like this on any country—when you were off work back then, you were off work. But because people now have become more reachable than they ever were, the lines separating one’s being “off work” and being “at work” have become blurrier. Thankfully, the Code published by Ireland’s WRC articulates the right to disconnect in at least three elements:
- The right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours;
- The right not to be penalized for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal work hours; and
- The duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect, such as by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours.
Let’s go over each of these three elements using some applicable examples and commentary.
1. The Right Not to Work Outside of Normal Work Hours
Ireland WRC’s Code explicitly states “to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours,” and this might be because burnout is becoming a more pressing issue. Organizations encourage the ideology of “going the extra mile,” and workers buy into the hustle culture BS being fed from everywhere, especially from thinkfluencers or motivational speakers who make money regurgitating this philosophy through books and subscription-based webinars.
It’s just right that a public institution would step in and try to change the pervading always-at-work phenomenon. In many organizations today, especially those that equip employees with mobile gadgets such as work cellphones and laptops, being expected to be available when something “urgent” comes up is accepted as normal. The right not to do work outside of normal working hours means that employees should only be doing work within their set hours. Does this mean employees should have set hours? What happened to having flexible hours?
This dilemma arises, but that doesn’t mean it’s unfixable. It probably just means employees have to go out of their way to communicate to co-workers and other stakeholders their regular working hours instead of saying something like “I’m usually already up by 8 in the morning and usually still able check messages at 9 at night.” Workers too, have to realize that they’re not doing themselves any favors by encouraging others to contact them anytime.
2. The Right Not to Be Punished for Refusing to Work
This second element gives more teeth to the first element because it shouldn’t just stop there. Other employees shouldn’t be favored just because they’re more reachable during off hours than those who set clear boundaries. In the same vein, being punished for refusing to work or attend to work matters outside normal hours is a practice that must be eliminated if a right to disconnect should exist.
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If a company perpetuates the trend of promoting employees because of their ability to be available all the time, especially outside normal work hours, then that company is in effect punishing employees who take command of their time. Some working parents like the idea of fixed work hours (especially short ones, less than the usual 8) because after work, the responsibilities at home are too much to handle. Some workers like to give a hundred percent at work when they’re “at work” and put all their attention to the needs of their family once work hours are over.
By punishing workers for refusing to work outside work hours, or at the other spectrum incentivizing workers for taking on work, the right to disconnect is violated.
3. The Duty to Respect the Right to Disconnect
This duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect is another element that further strengthens the right as a whole. It shows that this right is being upheld not just from a professional standpoint, but now it becomes more personal. If you take only the two elements, it feels as though any right-to-disconnect legislation would be addressed to organizations as opposed to addressing the persons within those organizations.
With the duty to respect becoming an essential element of the right to disconnect, bosses, colleagues, even customers and clients are warned not to bother the worker with work stuff at the wrong time. Bosses and clients can be so demanding—they’re the usual suspects when it comes to sending an email or pinging someone on the off hours. But they are especially not exempt from the duty to respect.
Part of being a good boss is respecting a subordinate’s personal space and time. And part of being a good client is understanding that your needs can wait, and not everything has to be urgent all the time.
Moving Out of Informal Resolutions, Grievance Procedure
“Talking it out” with your boss or HR should cease to be the resolution mechanism for when the right to disconnect gets abused or violated. Like every legal right, a formal process is in place to protect that right. What would happen if the only way to resolve not being paid minimum wage would be through verbal discussions? Fortunately, the Code of Practice provides that a grievance procedure must be had.
“Best practice suggests that employees should attempt to resolve the problem with the person(s) informally in the first instance … If an informal process has not been successful in resolving the issue, then the formal company grievance procedure may be utilized. Where there is a collective agreement, the parties should abide by those terms as it relates to raising grievances.”
This portion on grievances was perhaps one of my most favorite parts about the Irish Code because it shows that the right to disconnect is provided not only with substantive legal basis, but there is a procedural or remedial aspect that has been articulated for it also. And having a procedure to raise a complaint is essential in asserting a right.
We can all tell our bosses not to contact us on off hours because of our right to disconnect, but what happens when he still doesn’t stop? That’s when the grievance procedure comes in.
Where Is the Philippines on the Right to Disconnect?
I envy France, Ireland, and Ontario for their lawmakers’ action on making the right to disconnect a real thing. Working in the Philippines, my perception is that this right hasn’t gained much traction or at least reached the mainstream. There was a bill introduced in Congress in 2017, House Bill No. 4721, which was supported by a notable labor group called General Alliance of Workers Association (GAWA). The long title of the bill was: “An act granting employees the right to disconnect from work-related electronic communications after work hours.”
The proposed bill sounded great but the Secretary of Labor came out in 2017 saying that it should be employers who should implement a right-to-disconnect policy. And it completely irked me when he said, “It’s always up for the employees to oblige themselves to work even after office hours.” Doesn’t that sound just like those Thinkfluencers I mentioned at the beginning of this article?
The Philippines, or at least those in charge have a long way to go in accepting the right to disconnect as a legitimate right. And companies offshoring their operations here because of the cheaper labor probably won’t like the idea that Filipinos will start becoming picky on when they want to work—they certainly won’t enjoy the thought that their outsourced workers from a developing country suddenly didn’t want to be contacted on their “off hours.”
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.