Comment: Irish employees need right to disconnect

Remote workers must be legally protected from an expectation they should be ‘always on’

20th November, 2020
Comment: Irish employees need right to disconnect
Research has identified that working from home is associated with ‘longer hours, fewer rest periods and less predictable schedules’. Picture: Getty

Remote working has thrown a lifeline to many workers and to many businesses during this pandemic.

After the initial hiccups of shutting down offices in mid-March, lots of firms and their employees shifted operations to kitchen tables, the edge of the bed or, for the luckier ones, the spare room, study or shed.

One in three workers in this country were working remotely at the height of lockdown. It is likely a significant share will continue to work from home, either fully or partially, into next year and beyond.

The scale of remote working may be impressive now, but it is not new. Over the past two decades advances in technology have meant close to 490,000 workers were able to work from home some or all of the time at the start of this year.

The advantages are enormous: environmental savings, greater flexibility and more family and social time. Yet there has come a blurring of lines for some between when workers are “on” and when they are “off”, leaving a feeling that they are not so much working from home as living at the office.

The EU agency for Living and Working Conditions, Eurofound, has identified that working from home has led to “greater work intensification, competition, work on demand and an ‘always on’ culture”. Research based on the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) has found that it is also associated with “longer hours, fewer rest periods and less predictable schedules”.

In Ireland, researchers at NUI Galway’s Whittaker Institute and Western Development Commission conducted a National Remote Working Study this year and reported that 64 per cent of workers respond to emails outside of working hours. For some, this was their choice, others thought it was necessary to deal with their workload or felt their employer expected it.

For a sizeable share of remote workers, these impacts have a corrosive mental and physical health impact. We believe workers deserve better.

Since 2016, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain have all introduced a right to switch off and the German labour minister has a bill before parliament giving the right to flexible work and the right to switch off.

Here, remote working and flexible working will be increasingly common features of our world of work. Eurofound has identified that almost 40 per cent of employment in Ireland is “teleworkable”, a share that exceeds the EU average and which is good news in terms of the probability of holding onto jobs during this pandemic and recession.

Added to that, legislation promoting the take-up of flexible and remote work is coming down the tracks. The EU work-life balance directive giving a right to parents and carers to seek flexible work has to be transposed by Ireland before 2022. So our Labour Party bill is designed to protect first in the form of the right to “switch off” before we start to promote even greater levels of remote working.

Our bill makes two significant changes to employment law. The first relates to the Terms of Employment (Information) Act so that a worker is informed at the point of where they sign their contract or become part of a collective agreement on company’s policy with regard to out-of-hours use of electronic communications. Rules are no good if there is no awareness of them.

The second sets out that employers shall not require an employee to access electronic communications between when regular hours end and when they start, as to do so will mean that it is counted as working time for the purposes of the Act. Failure to adhere to this, means that workers have recourse to the complaint under the Act. While the Organisation of Working Time Act does set out minimum rest periods for workers, it has been notoriously difficult to prove. Our bill will make that easier.

Many will ask is it realistic to expect that a change in law will really change anything for workers. I believe that legislation on the right to switch off will be an impetus to change in workplace culture and attitudes. Without it, the lowest paid and the least valued workers will suffer.

For the right to switch off to be effective, it will require leadership at the top of companies. The Financial Services Union has been campaigning on the right to disconnect for some time and this year made a breakthrough by concluding a collective agreement for workers in AIB.

Some 55 per cent of the country’s financial, insurance and professional services workers were working from home at the height of the pandemic, with the figure 65 per cent for the ICT sector, according to the CSO Labour Force survey. It’s not hard to imagine that many will continue to work in this way.

Abroad, car manufacturers such as Volkswagen and Daimler have introduced right to disconnect policies as have insurance and ICT companies including Axa and Orange. The methods differ between so-called “hard” measures such as blocking the receipt of emails out of hours (Volkswagen, IBM) while others use softer methods of persuasion such as pop-up “send it later” message, the use of training and a digital use report for each worker on an annual basis.

Ultimately, a change in workplace culture will be crucial to improve the work-life balance of those working remotely. Research from the US and British business management academics Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable has found that even if those working remotely work just as diligently as their in-office colleagues, they receive less favourable performance evaluations, smaller pay rises, and fewer win promotions. In their 2010 study, traits such as commitment and reliability were more positively associated with being in the office.

Therein lie serious implications for young workers and those new to a job who may feel they need to prove themselves all the more by working around the clock.

Remote working and a right to flexible work may well be the greater enabler for women workers, particularly those with young children or other caring responsibilities. But safeguards need to be put in place.

Senator Marie Sherlock is the Labour spokeswoman for employment affairs

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