The Fair Work Commission ("FWC") approved an enterprise agreement for Victorian police officers that provides the "right to disconnect" outside of their specified availability, with the exception of "emergency situations or genuine welfare matters". This development is intended to combat the 'always on-duty culture' and allow for career longevity by reducing possible burnout by Victorian police officers.
In the digital age and with the rising popularity of flexible work options, the right to disconnect from work and creating boundaries between the workplace and home are likely to become increasingly relevant to employees and an important consideration for employers as they shape their workplace cultures in a post-pandemic environment.
Right to disconnect
The Victoria Police (Police Officers, Protective Services Officers, Police Reservists and Police Recruits) Enterprise Agreement 2019 (the "Victorian Police EA") provides the right to disconnect for certain employees outside of effective working hours. Under these provisions, employees are not required to read or respond to emails or phone calls outside of their effective working hours. The Victorian Police EA explicitly requires supervisors and managers to respect employees' periods of leave and rest days.
While this is a landmark development in Australia, there has been a trend in other jurisdictions towards introducing a "right to disconnect". In France, "right to disconnect" laws were introduced into the French Labor Code in 2016 with the goal to ensure that the non-work hours of employees are respected. The changes require each individual company to develop a known set of rules and protocols that are to be followed by both employers and employees. Similar initiatives have been made in Ireland, Italy, Germany, Spain and the Philippines.
Working from home has steadily increased due to technological development, however the COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed the adoption of working from home arrangements for many employers due to lockdown demands, which have blurred the distinction between an employee's work-life and home-life. Creating boundaries to prevent "availability creep" has become increasingly popular for employees trying to maintain work-life balance and for employers prioritising the mental-health of their staff.
While working from home allowed for positive developments such as a reduction in travel time and schedule flexibility, it has also had some negative connotations such as a loss of routine, a lack of physical, emotional, and social separation between home and work, and lower morale and camaraderie. Boundaries such as not requiring employees to engage with workplace communications outside their effective working hours is one way employers can respect periods of leave and ensure that 'disconnection' allows for sustained productivity during work hours.
The "right to disconnect" is increasingly becoming a priority area for employees and for unions attempting to combat "on-duty" culture. As Australia and the rest of the world begin the post-pandemic recovery, employers will be looking to shape their workplace cultures and practices. While the needs of each individual business must be the overarching driver, an important consideration in that process is striking a balance between having a responsive and contactable workforce while respecting the work-life balance of employees.
- The "right to disconnect" is likely to become more important for employees as work-life balance becomes more of a priority.
- Unions and employees are likely to demand a similar right to disconnect in their enterprise agreements and contracts.
- Employers who wish to create a flexible working environment and work culture will need to consider whether similar rights to disconnect are adopted.