Right to disconnect looms as massive work change giving lives back to employees

Published by ABC on 6 April 2021

Technology has extended the working day far beyond when employees are paid for their time.

But the "digital leash" — the compulsion to answer calls, texts and emails out of hours — is being rejected with a new power: the right to disconnect.

Sergeant Rachel Dunkinson works for the mounted branch of Victoria Police, caring for the horses, planning for large public events, and attending rallies and protests.

"We take on a policing role," she explained. "So we've got all those pressures of being a police officer… but on top of a horse."

Sergeant Dunkinson never expects to finish a shift on time.

"It's not a matter of, 'you can just knock off at three o'clock when the bell goes'. We're responding to what's happening out there."

But a culture of being constantly contactable after hours has added to the draining mental toll of the work.

"It just causes undue stress for people," Sergeant Dunkinson said.

"That's not necessary when the job is stressful enough."

Right to disconnect

The right to disconnect – won in the union's most recent negotiations – directs managers to respect leave and rest days and avoid contacting officers outside work hours, unless in an emergency or to check on their welfare.

The aim is to shift the "always-on" culture so that officers can switch off from work after they have finished their shift.

"I don't know anyone that doesn't walk away from a day at work, when they've done (a big job) and it's not on their mind, in their thinking about it," the 16-year police force veteran added.

"So then to get a call at home because of something that needs to be chased up, or something that they just want to continue on while you're not there, it's just an added stress.

"Then you just can't forget about it for the rest of the day, and quite often these are things that can probably be left to the following day or when you're next back at work."

Unlike most workers, police do deal in life and death matters.

The right to disconnect, written into the enterprise bargaining agreement struck between the workforce and The Force, makes clear that getting in contact about a bushfire, pandemic, terrorist attack or similar event is an emergency.

Calling to ask about a piece of correspondence, or to ask about changing a future shift, is not.

France, of course

For harried workers checking their emails in bed late at night, the concept may seem outlandish.

But workplace laws across developed nations share two similar, simple rules. When you are at work, you work. When you're not at work, or it's not during working hours, you're not meant to.

"With the introduction of new technologies this boundary between what is work and what is not work started to blur," said Professor Emmanuel Josserand from the Centre for Business and Social Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney.

"A few years back you started to have this question around 'well, what is appropriate?'," he observed.

"Can we contact workers on their mobile, or by SMS, by email when they're actually not at work? And what about flexible work arrangements? Where does it stop? Where does it end?"

In 2016, the right to disconnect was legislated in France, obliging companies with more than 50 staff to negotiate, essentially to set out when workers were not supposed to send or answer emails and ways to reduce the intrusion of work into people's private lives.

The laws have teeth. In 2018, the French arm of pest control company Rentokil Initial was ordered to pay a former employee €60,000 ($92,000) because it found the former regional director was ordered to "permanently leave his telephone on… to respond to requests from his subordinates or customers" in case of problems while he was not at work.

Other countries have since introduced similar laws.

For Professor Josserand, the right to disconnect is about one specific question.

"What can I ask my employees to do if they're not at work physically, or if it's not working hours?"

'Back to the future'

Life-long police officers, like Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt, are delighted with the new provision, which is already having a positive impact.

"To some extent it's back to the future," he said.

"When I joined Victoria Police we didn't have a culture that meant you rang people 24/7.

"We didn't have (mobile) phones back then, we didn't have the intrusive technology that we have today. We know we can do this."

Emergency services have focussed on improving the mental health of employees in recent years, as evidence has grown of the toll taken by the difficult and relentless aspects of the work.

"We need to put the brakes on some of the things our members do outside of their working hours, so that we can keep them at their best and we can keep them helping the community for a long and productive career," he said.

A key part of that is insisting that people clock off and leave work at work.

"You carry that load, you carry that work 24/7," he explained.

"It's really important that as much as possible – though you can't all the time – but as much as possible we try and introduce some barriers so our members can wind down, so they can return to normal.

"That's so important for their mental health and wellbeing."

D-I-Y boundaries

Danni Hunter believes in boundaries. Not just because she works in property, but because it can improve your life.

"Switching off is so incredibly important," Ms Hunter, the Victorian executive director of the Property Council of Australia enthused.

"Not only for mental health. It actually enables you to do every job in your life better.

"Switching off from work enables you to do your job as a parent better, switching off from your role on your cricket team allows you to do your job at work better."

With a busy work schedule and a young family, Ms Hunter has many demands on her time. But she aims to help her staff work smarter hours – not just longer.

"It's a nature of business responsibility that bosses have to be able to recognise that their staff are not available to them 24/7," she said.

"[Flexibility] looks different for every person, so there's got to be an element of responsibility and leadership, and also individual boundary setting, in terms of what they allow into their home lives and also what they give back and contribute to their roles."

Sergeant Dunkinson said enshrining the right to disconnect in her employment agreement has had a positive impact on workers and bosses.

There is no set penalty for breaking it, but it has already created a cultural shift around contacting staff out-of-hours.

"I know my family really benefits from it and they appreciate it," she said.

"Just from a work perspective you can do your job so much better, because you are coming back and you are fresh, you are keen and you are just able to give your best."

"You're almost burnt out otherwise, because you're never really truly switching off."

For the union's secretary, the right to disconnect is already working, even as bosses and staff negotiate the new boundaries.

"Cultural shift starts with changes to rules and from that you start to have cultural change," he said.

"That makes a difference to people's working lives.

"Our working lives are just that, they're our lives. and our time at work is our time at work. And our time – for the rest of our lives – is important to focus on too."