The Right to Disconnect is Fraught with Challenges

HRHQ Disconnect

by Peter Cosgrove, MD of Futurewise Ltd.

Legislation on the right to disconnect is coming in for Australian workers and while it is a guideline currently in Ireland, I spoke with Newstalk about whether we should follow the Australian example.

The right to disconnect comes from the right place as we are spending too much time connected to our screens and by default our head is “in work” far more than it used to be. However, legalising the right to disconnect is fraught with practical challenges:

As an employee, if you begin to push back on your employer for any out of hours emails or calls, you may put yourself in a position where other employees still take these calls and are happy to do so. Whether you like this or not this may end up working against you in performance reviews. A legal right or a policy is not the same as the practices and unwritten rules that companies have.

Hybrid working has changed not just where we work but when we work. More and more employees are working split shifts, where they work the morning, and perhaps take a few hours off in the afternoon to pick up kids or go to kids events and then are comfortable logging back in in the evening, this makes the right to disconnect problematic as we are moving away from traditional work hours of 9 to 5.

From an employee perspective you should understand that we now live in a 24-7 world, so disconnecting completely may not work. So there needs to be some middle ground. As an employee there may also be times when you want more flexibility in your day which means you will want that ability to be online late at night if you can take some personal time during the day.

What employers should consider:

  • It starts with the culture at the top, there is no point having guidelines and policies if the behaviour of senior management does not reflect this, start with this.
  • Accept that having an employee tethered to their screen checking emails that probably don’t have to be dealt with late at night is not good for their stress, wellbeing and sleep. If you want a productive worker, you should want them to disconnect.
  • Look at how employees are communicating to your employees. Once you start blurring the boundaries by using text and WhatsApp, as even when an employee is trying to disconnect you are making this incredibly difficult for them to do so.
  • Be clear with your expectations from the start, it is probably unrealistic to say you will never contact an employee outside of hours, but it needs to be because of something urgent, not a day-to-day matter.

What employees should consider:

  • Turn off notifications: If you turn off all your notifications you can only check your email when you decide to do it. We are often our own worst enemies so give yourself the chance to disconnect, as again many people may still send you emails late at night but not expect you to read them until the next day.
  • Manage upwards: For years I went on holiday and had an out of office saying I would not be checking email but gave out my mobile number in case there was anything urgent. It is amazing how few people call you as very little is actually urgent and when it is, you are generally happy that they did call. Let your manager know you can be called in the evening, but you are off email, I promise – you won’t get very many calls!
  • If your work culture is not changing and you feel like you are on call all the time, you have a choice. We are still in a fairly buoyant employment market, so there are always choices: are you paid well enough that you accept out of hours calls for the money you make, or would you move roles to take a job where every hour you are not in the office is your own. All choices have trade-offs – consider what yours are.

Getting time away from digital devices both at home and at work is getting more and more difficult and is crucial for our ability to think, ideate and recharge, so we need to take control of the devices that currently seem to have control over us.

About the author

Peter Cosgrove leads Futurewise and is an expert on future trends and a much sought-after speaker on talks related to the future of work. He has over 25 years business experience on executive teams as well as on not for profit boards as board member and Chairman. He has been Chair of Junior Achievement Ireland, the National Recruitment Federation and currently serves on the 30% Club Steering Committee tackling gender balance and is Vice Chairman of Aware, a leading mental health charity. Peter has served as a Board adviser for a number of Staffing organisations and has been a contributor to the Expert Group on Future Skills.