United States: Workplace Law & Strategy Blog: Switching Off: Making Sense Of Working Time Laws In Europe

Last Updated: September 16 2016
Article by Ming Henderson

In the last five years, with the development of information technology and mobile devices, the distinction between being "at work" and "off work" has been profoundly altered. Working time is no longer confined to being in an office and working days are both more intense and infinitely extendable, making monitoring working times even more complex.

Coupled with a global economy, many employees feel that they are permanently connected to their work, irrespective of time zones and local laws.

EU working time laws are rapidly developing to deal with this trend and the negative impact it's having on employee health and wellbeing. The sanctions for employers breaching these laws are potentially serious. This means that one of the most challenging issues facing global companies today is juggling time zones effectively and responding to business 24/7 without falling foul of working time laws.

Trying to figure out the local time of employees based in different time zones is a complex task in itself. Thankfully, there are a variety of user-friendly apps that can do the maths for you. But understanding the labour law rules when employees are operating in a different time zone is even more daunting, and unfortunately, no app is available to crunch this data for us.

For example, employees working on global projects will often be expected to dial into calls outside their regular local business hours and/or to respond to emails late at night. Though most internationally-minded employees may be willing to accommodate the requirements of their manager or client based overseas, in the EU, asking employees to work beyond their standard hours poses many challenges for employers in complying with working time regulations.

The EU Directive on Working Time (2003/88/EC) of 4 November 2003, directly connects working time to health and safety matters. For this reason, it specifies a series of principles employees should respect to preserve their sanity:

  • a maximum of 48 working hours per week;
  • a minimum rest period of 11 hours, every 24 hours;
  • a minimum weekly rest period of 24 uninterrupted hours for each 7-day period (in addition to the 11 hours above); and
  • paid annual leave of at least 4 weeks per year.

There are additional working time arrangements for specific industries such as the transport sector and sea workers, and to make things more complex, each jurisdiction within the EU has supplemented the Directive with its own laws and sector specific agreements, so the variations are quasi-infinite.

The potential sanctions for non-compliance are high-stakes for employers. They include penalties and claims for overtime payments (sometimes over several years prior) and can extend to criminal records for the company's representatives, damages for breach of contract or liability for work-related injuries and harassment.

In recent debates, it has been suggested by the EU commission and selected EU countries that not recording all workers' working hours might constitute an offence of undeclared work, which in turn is connected to modern slavery, and can have a severe impact on an organisation's reputation and brand.

France, a pioneer in intricate working time laws, introduced a new Labour Law on 2 August 2016, safeguarding an employee's 'right and duty to switch off from work'. This right was previously found in the Syntec collective bargaining agreement governing most software companies in France and was utilised in a handful of workplace agreements of major French groups and even some German groups. They have made this part of the labour code, thus obliging all employers in France to include this topic in their annual negotiations effective January 2017.

In practice, French employees will still be allowed to occasionally join late calls or work with colleagues in different time zones, but employers should avoid expecting this routinely from their employees and managers. Though it is still unclear how the reform will fully play out, we anticipate employers will, beyond the negotiation obligations explained above, need to implement a mechanism, and, for those employing more than 300 employees, launch a corporate policy, ensuring such a right is effectively recognised and takes into account specific business working patterns and requirements.

Some employers may choose to simply pay lip service to the reform, yet it clearly states that from 1 January 2017 companies will have a duty to actively support the employee's right to switch off their devices: this will include, as a strict minimum, verifying employees comply with rest periods and stating that they are allowed not to respond to emails during rest periods – or even ensuring software supports compliance.

A straightforward approach could be to adopt a policy allowing employees who work internationally to start work later or earlier, raising awareness of the virtues of having a healthy work life balance, creating group discussions to propose practical solutions to achieve work life balance, and monitoring with employees' input any issues relating to excessive connections to their work device.

For companies who have a health and safety committee, they must be closely involved in the design and monitoring of the company's plans.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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