MEPs have called for a right to digitally disconnect from work without facing negative repercussions.
The legislative initiative, which passed last week in the European Parliament by 472 votes in favour and 126 against, comes as coronavirus infections rise across the continent and governments reimpose lockdowns, forcing workers to stay home and work remotely for a longer period of time.
The so-called right to disconnect envisioned by MEPs would allow workers to "refrain from engaging in work-related tasks, activities and electronic communication, such as phone calls, emails and other messages, outside their working time", including during rest periods, annual holidays and other types of leave. The right would entitle employees to switch off their devices "with no risk of adverse consequences, such as dismissal or other retaliatory measures".
For MEPs, the right to disconnect is an inseparable part of the digital era. They consider there is no specific EU law regulating this particular area and that legislation varies across EU countries.
"Ultimately we have a situation whereby the legislation was written in a period when digitalisation was not so prominent in our lives, therefore it is the right time and we have the political push," Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba, who acts as rapporteur for the file, told Euronews.
In order to fix this fragmentation, MEPs are asking the European Commission to propose a law to enshrine the right to disconnect at the EU level, establishing minimum requirements and conditions for remote working.
Anxiety, 'technostress' and burnout
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of employees across Europe have been relocated from their offices to their own homes. While the measure was initially temporary, successive waves of infections have put on hold plans to resume the old normal. Many European workers now find themselves in a permanent state of working from home.
This new work arrangement has led to what MEPs deem “always-on culture”, the pressure that workers feel to be constantly available for video calls, last-minute emails or other digital communications, often stretching outside their contractual working hours. MEPs warn that overtime might be unremunerated. As a result, the work-life balance of employees deteriorates, and so does their mental health.
Psychologists and health experts have for months raised the alarm about the negative impact of COVID-19 on people's mental health. The World Health Organization estimates that “levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour” will increase due to a disruption in normal life activity.
For those working from home, the effects of social isolation are compounded by the expectation to be available at almost any time, producing hazardous consequences, such as anxiety, fatigue, "technostress" and burnout.
"During the first months of burnout, it's really important to rest. It is really very difficult for people with burnout to say to themselves I have to stop," Stéphanie Leblanc, a psychologist from Mensura, a Belgian health service, explained in an interview with Euronews. "There's a lot of guilt as well."
Long road ahead
MEPs are not entirely negative about remote working. They acknowledge the key role that it has played in safeguarding workers throughout the pandemic and recognise the flexibility and independence that digital tools enable.
However, they expect the numbers of people doing remote work to remain high – and even increase – after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
The side effects attached to remote work can become so detrimental and unfair for employees that the situation requires urgent EU-wide action, they conclude.
Stressed-out workers hoping to invoke the right to disconnect will have to wait some time before being able to switch off their smartphones without fearing reprisals. The initiative is currently in the early stages of the legislative process and the Commission is yet to submit a draft law, which would be then negotiated between the European Parliament and national ministers.
The political groups in the Parliament have already expressed divergent positions on how strongly enforced any working time limits or restrictions on employers should be. A proposed amendment to the report suggests linking any right to disconnect to the implementation of a 2020 agreement on the digitalisation of the EU's workforce.
Isabelle Schömann, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, thinks this amendment would create an unnecessary delay. “We are speaking about more than 8 years delay for the Commission to act and I think it is unacceptable to delay the protection, the very needed protection of workers in such a crisis situation,” she told Euronews.