Posey's Tips & Tricks

As Remote Work Stretches On, 'Right To Disconnect' Laws Seen as Necessary

It's getting harder for employees to detach themselves from their PCs, especially in a work-from-home scenario. To prevent mass burnout, some governments are advocating for legally protected downtime.

I think we can all agree that 2020 was anything but normal, and 2021 (at least the early part of it) doesn't look like it will be much different. With so much of the world in what seems like perpetual lockdown and everyone still working from home, it can be tough to maintain any sort of healthy work-life balance. I have heard story after story from people whose bosses or co-workers assume that because they are stuck at home, they have nothing better to do than to work all the time.

Microsoft has stepped in to help people to maintain some sense of normalcy by adding features to Microsoft 365 that are geared toward achieving a reasonable work-life balance. Even so, such features do little good if people feel pressured by their employers to spend every waking moment working.

Recently, however, some help has come from a somewhat unexpected source. The European Union is pushing for a "right to disconnect" law, aimed at helping those who work from home. The idea behind this law is that those who have been working from home as a result of the pandemic have been suffering numerous negative side effects. Too often employees are expected to be always online and reachable. The work-from-home trend has also largely eliminated overtime pay and caused adverse effects on employees' health such as weight gain, depression and anxiety, eye strain and burnout.

With its right to disconnect law, the EU is recognizing that it is unrealistic and detrimental for an employer to expect its employees to be online and available at all times. The law essentially states that employees should be allowed to go offline on an as-needed basis without facing disciplinary action or other acts of retribution from their employer.

As timely as the EU's actions seem to be, it isn't the first to take measures to keep employees from being enslaved by their electronic devices. The Philippines, for example, created a similar law way back in 2017.

This, however, brings up an interesting point. Even though the lack of work-life balance has been largely blamed on the pandemic suddenly forcing everyone to work from home, expectations for employees to always be accessible go back much further. Back in 2019, for example, I was at a restaurant with a friend who was constantly having to respond to instant messages from people at work even though it was 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday.

In fact, I'd say the problem goes at least as far back as the 1990s, even though it wasn't quite as extreme back then. At that time, I was working as a network administrator for a large insurance company. Everyone in the IT department was required to wear a pager in case they needed to be reached in the event of a datacenter emergency. Thankfully, that particular organization didn't abuse the pager (even though I got called in more times than I can count). Even so, I can vividly recall a conversation with a family member who was bothered by the idea that I had to wear the pager at a holiday gathering and couldn't just leave it at home.

There has always been a natural tendency for employers to encroach on their employees' personal time, and technology (and the lockdowns) has only made it easier for this type of unwanted encroachment to happen. While I think it's great that the EU is taking steps to protect its citizens, its actions point to something far more profound. The fact that the EU even sees a need for a right to disconnect law is an indication that people -- not just lawmakers -- are starting to acknowledge the idea that technology is being abused in a way that is harmful to the general population. As a result, we may soon see a pendulum shift away from the workaholic, always-on culture that has become so pervasive.

I don't necessarily think that this pendulum shift is going to happen as a matter of law (although it could), but rather because of backlash from burned-out employees who "just can't keep doing this." If this happens, then a return to a much more realistic work-life balance might be the one good thing to come out of the pandemic.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 19-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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