France has done it. So have Italy, Ireland, Germany and Spain. Recently Belgium did it too. Now there are moves in Australia to do the same. We are talking about the right to disconnect from work after hours.

Out-of-hours work contact increased during pandemic

The phenomenon of employers contacting employees outside working hours has grown steadily with technology. Everyone is reachable at all hours through emails, texts and calls to mobile phones.

It means many employees can never really switch off from work, adding to stress and exhaustion. A work email or text that arrives during dinner, late at night or on weekends sits there, demanding an answer. Failure to respond could risk your job.

The pressure to answer work messages after hours increased further during the pandemic, when working from home also meant living in the office. It amounts to unpaid overtime.

Significant cost of unpaid work

The Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute found the average Australian puts in 6.1 hours of unpaid overtime every week and it is growing as people work from home more.

This left workers down an average $460 per fortnight. Unpaid overtime work in the past year added up to $125 billion. (Please see Working from home, or living at work? - The Australia Institute, 17 November 2021.)

Countries enact "right to disconnect" legislation

The rebellion against being on call for work 24 hours a day began in France. In 1998 an ambulance driver failed to answer his boss's phone call after work hours and was dismissed.

After protests, France introduced a law that protected employees against being penalised for ignoring after hours work messages.

Other countries followed with similar laws.

Difficulty with legislating the right to disconnect

However, it is difficult to legislate a right to disconnect for employees in all industries. (Please see The right to disconnect: Why legislation doesn't address the real problems with work, The Conversation, 16 November 2021.)

For some, such as those in emergency and essential services, it may be part of their job to be on call after hours.

There are work codes overseas that could be used as a model for Australia.

Ireland's code of practice stressed the right of workers not to work outside normal hours "routinely", the right not to be penalised for refusing to work after hours, and the duty to respect another worker's right to disconnect. (Please see Tánaiste signs Code of Practice on Right to Disconnect, Government of Ireland, 1 April 2021.)

Enterprise agreement for Victoria Police includes right to disconnect

Last year the Fair Work Commission approved an enterprise agreement for the Victoria Police Force which included a right to disconnect and that employees' off-hours should be respected. (Please see Do we deserve the right to disconnect, Law Society Journal, 2 August 2021.)

The agreement said unless there was an emergency or concern for welfare, or unless the officer had an availability allowance, "employees are not required to read or respond to emails or phone calls outside their effective working hours".

While this does not legally enshrine the right to disconnect, it may be the first of many such agreements covering public and private workplaces and reduce the demand for 24/7 availability.

Nick Burton
Employment law
Stacks Collins Thompson

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