France and Spain: Right to Disconnect Spreads

 

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin May 20, 2019

​Because of modern technology, many employers now expect workers to stay connected at home, on their own time, to field work e-mails and texts.

This blurring of the line between work and personal time, and the accompanying stress and intrusion into home life, has prompted authorities in France, Spain and elsewhere to implement or consider laws requiring employers to recognize employees' right to disconnect from workplace communications.

"I think that this is part of the whole digital transformation. Things are changing in all sorts of spheres so quickly that clearly the legislation is having problems keeping up," said Raquel Flórez, a lawyer with Freshfields Bruchhaus Deringer in Madrid.

Employer expectations that employees check and answer e-mails and texts after hours create strain not only for employees but also their families, according to researcher Bill Becker, associate professor of management at Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business in Blacksburg, Va.

French Legislation

French policymakers, who consider off-duty e-mail use to be a health and safety concern, adopted a right-to-disconnect law to address rising stress levels among employees who check e-mail after hours, Flórez said.

As of 2017, employers in France with at least 50 workers must negotiate agreements with unions allowing employees to disconnect from work technology after hours. If the parties don't reach an agreement, the employer must establish a right-to-disconnect policy on after-hours technology use.

The law doesn't specify what procedures employers must put in place, but it requires them to enter into collective bargaining with unions to try to agree on processes governing off-hours connection, said Flórez, who noted that the law doesn't penalize noncompliant companies.

France's highest court nevertheless reportedly ordered a U.K. pest control firm last year to pay 60,000 euros—approximately US$67,219—to a former employee fired years earlier from its French operations. The court found that the former regional director, who was required to leave his phone on around the clock, should be compensated for having been on call after hours.

Since passage of the right-to-disconnect law, several French companies have started to include rules in their collective bargaining agreements, according to Flórez.

"The effectiveness of this is still subject to discussion. What we have seen since then is that several companies have started to set up in their collective bargaining agreements certain rules," including those aimed at ensuring workers don't have to engage with communications outside work hours, Flórez said.

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Spanish Law

A recently approved Spanish law also establishes employees' right to disconnect from digital devices during off-work hours to ensure respect for their rest time, holidays and privacy.

The law calls on employers, after hearing from workers' representatives, to set up internal policies defining for employees how to exercise the right to disconnect, including training for staff on reasonable use of technology to help avoid computer fatigue. Spain's law emphasizes that employees working remotely are guaranteed the right to disconnect.

Like the French law, Flórez noted, the new Spanish rules don't impose penalties on employers that fail to comply. "At least this is bringing the discussion to the table," she said.

High Expectations and High Anxiety

A legal approach may be increasingly popular, Becker said, "but I don't think it's going to fix the basic problem" if employer expectations don't change.

Laws aren't likely to 'fix the basic problem.'

Becker's U.S.-based research found that 60 percent of workers think their employers have high expectations that they monitor after-hours work e-mails.

Becker also found that:

  • 80 percent of study participants were anxious about their work e-mail use at home.
  • 40 percent reported significant conflict between themselves and relatives over the use of work e-mail at home.
  • 55 percent of spouses were anxious about participants' work e-mail use at home.

Companies may think they're getting something for nothing when employees respond to e-mails after hours, but there's a price to be paid when unhappy or anxious employees either leave or become less effective, he said.

Employers should consider how much after-hours connection is necessary and make sure managers enforce disconnection policies, according to Becker.

"We've been trying to show that companies should care about this even without laws," he said, adding that it's "in their best interest to help people to disconnect."

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia.

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