Illustration of hand with finger pushing switch with click sound, symbolising the right to disconnect.
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Explained: Remote working and the right to disconnect

22 Jan 2021

As Ireland launches its remote working strategy, MEPs have voted in favour of introducing a right to disconnect.

Last week, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, published Ireland’s first National Remote Work Strategy. It outlined a number of steps to ensure more flexible working options are available in Ireland in the long term, including a legal code of practice on the right to disconnect.

Rolling out the right to disconnect means employees would be entitled to disengage from doing work-related tasks, such as phone calls and emails, outside of normal working hours. The aim of a code would be to ensure that employers and employees are aware of their requirements and entitlements regarding ‘switching off’ at the end of the work day, and the code could be used as evidence in court proceedings.

Though the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of more flexible working policies, these plans have been on the cards for some time. As 2019 came to an end, the right to disconnect was included in a public consultation on the future of work in Ireland. Almost exactly a year later, Varadkar announced another public consultation – this time focusing on a code of practice for the right to disconnect.

While having the right to disconnect is important for workers regardless of location, the mass shift to working from home has pushed the topic to the forefront. Now, MEPs have also agreed that disconnecting from work should be a fundamental right across the EU.

Right to disconnect in the EU

Having adopted a resolution on the issue late last year, members of the European Parliament passed a legislative initiative yesterday (21 January), calling on the EU to introduce a law on the right to digitally disconnect from work. This includes holidays and other forms of leave. A total of 472 votes were in favour of the initiative, while 126 were against and 83 abstained.

MEPs also called on the European Commission to set minimum requirements for remote working, including clarification of working conditions, hours and rest periods.

‘It is time to update workers’ rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age’

The European Parliament cited Eurofound research that claims people who work from home are twice as likely than those on company premises to work more than 48 hours every week. This ‘always-on’ culture negatively impacts work-life balance, MEPs said, and can contribute to anxiety, burnout, depression and more.

“We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always on and overly long working hours,” said Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba.

“Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update workers’ rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age.”

Policies on the right to disconnect are already in place in some EU countries, such as France, while others have flexible working policies, including Italy.

Gender equality for remote workers

Disconnecting wasn’t the only right discussed by MEPs yesterday. They also presented a report on improving gender equality and protecting women’s rights during and after the pandemic, which received 485 votes in favour, 86 against and 108 abstentions.

Parliament argued that the pandemic has hit women harder than it has men. Working from home has given rise to greater levels of domestic violence, MEPs said, and they are urging member states to “establish safe and flexible emergency warning systems” for women.

Women will also be disproportionately affected by the economic crisis on the back of the pandemic, the report said, leading to “even greater inequalities between men and women”. It added that countries must set out targeted actions for gender equality to address this in national recovery plans.

Finally, it highlighted the added burden of childcare for some women as they work from home. It emphasised that working from home is not a substitute for childcare and that governments should “encourage men, through incentive measures, to take up flexible working as a disproportionate number of women are now making use of these arrangements”.

Right to disconnect: Next steps

Announcing the new remote working strategy for Ireland earlier this month, Varadkar said that it “has to be done right” and that “employment rights need to be updated”.

“Many people will want to continue on to do at least some remote working after the pandemic, and it’s really important that we protect the rights and entitlements of those workers so that they can still switch off from work,” he said.

“That is why we have included the right to disconnect piece. We want to put in place the structures which ensure we take advantage of the benefits of remote working and protect against the downsides.”

Varadkar has tasked Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission with designing the code of practice on an employee’s right to disconnect from work, and it has been inviting submissions from the public on this topic until today (22 January).

While Bloomberg believes it could be years before the European Commission rolls out a right to disconnect across the EU, Varadkar said that a new group will meet every four months to monitor the implementation of the Government’s remote working strategy in Ireland.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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