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Workers of the World, Unplug: The Fight for the ‘Right to Disconnect’

France, Luxembourg, Spain, and the Philippines have already taken steps to legislate a cap on the 8-hour work day. Will other countries follow suit?

by Katie Way
Oct 16 2019, 7:10pm

Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images

When I’m off the clock, I make a concerted effort to be as unreachable as possible. I’m not logged into my work email on my phone, I don’t bring my laptop home, and I forget how to read on a nightly basis, just in case one of my editors tries to Slack me about something after I leave the office. But not everyone is lucky enough to work somewhere that tolerates an off-the-clock technology blackout, which is why the movement pushing for “right to disconnect” exists—although it hasn’t managed to score a victory in the U.S. yet.

Proponents of the right to disconnect argue that the pressure to answer electronic communications from work—like emails, text messages, or phone calls—after hours amounts to unpaid labor, at the very least, and a human rights violation at worst. A guide for employees looking to fight for their right to disconnect released Wednesday by the UNI Global Union outlines the problem as follows: “Technological developments and mobile devices have allowed employees to perform their work anywhere and at any time. While there are also benefits with this flexible approach to work, it risks eroding the barriers between working and leisure time… This constant connection and ensuing lack of rest carries important psychosocial risks for employees, including anxiety, depression, and burnout.” Research backs these mental health claims, and one study found the mere expectation of work communication during leisure time triggered anxiety in workers, even if no communication actually took place.

The right to disconnect has been legislated into existence in a few countries, first by France in 2016, and subsequently Spain and Italy on a national level. According to the UNI Global Union, Belgium, Canada, India, the Philippines, and Portugal have also codified pro-disconnect measures at some level, be it state or national, and a judge in Luxembourg recently recognized an employee’s right to disconnect on paid leave in an October ruling.

The only place in the U.S. where someone mounted a serious effort to legislate some kind of right to disconnect is New York City, where Councilman Rafael Espinal introduced a bill that would “make it unlawful for private employees in the city of New York to require employee [sic] to check and respond to email and other electronic communications during non-work hours.” Espinal told VICE in 2018 that he saw the bill as “a way to draw clear boundaries between workers’ personal and work lives.” Unfortunately, efforts seem to have stalled: The bill hasn’t been discussed since January 2019, according to the New York City Council’s official website.

So, why hasn’t the right to disconnect taken off in the U.S. yet? My personal theory is that we are (and this is the technical term) too horny for work to set up healthy boundaries around our personal lives. After all, Americans get shorted on vacation days (and then short ourselves out of using them); we take the literally impossible ideal of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” seriously; and we work more hours annually per person than Italy, Canada, Australia, the U.K., France, Germany, or even Japan—you know, the same Japan where the work culture is so pervasive and demanding that “businessmen passing out in the streets” is a trope! It’s tough to say no to a demanding boss or resist the temptation to do a little extra work at home in the hopes of making things easier tomorrow. But trust me: It’s worth letting your personal time stay personal, especially if you aren’t getting paid to “hustle” harder.

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Tagged:
mental health
anxiety
Emails
Right to Disconnect
workplace stress
uni global union