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The right to disconnect is a win for employee wellbeing

By Jack Campbell
09 February 2024 | 12 minute read
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The proposed Right to Disconnect Bill will see employers’ hold on their staff outside of working hours be stripped away. While some leaders may be fretting about this change, one thing that will thrive is the wellbeing of vulnerable workers.

The Fair Work Amendment (Right to Disconnect) Bill 2023, as described by the Parliament of Australia, will “prevent employers from contacting employees outside of work hours; and provide that employees are not required to monitor, read or respond to work communications from their employer outside of work hours”.

Burnout is a very real threat to employee wellbeing, and this proposed legislation is a great step towards mitigating these issues. We may now be even closer to reaching a decision, as recently reported by REB’s sister brand, HR Leader.

“Many studies, in Australia and overseas, have identified the adverse psychological, emotional and social consequences of employees being, and feeling themselves to be, constantly connected to their employers and fellow workers,” commented barrister Ian Neil.

“The pandemic, which required many employees to work remotely, dramatically increased the use of emails, messaging services, text messages and phone calls, and at the same time, blurred the distinction between working time and non-working time. Those two phenomena meant that the adverse effects of constant connection became more widespread.”

Mr Neil noted that Australia is behind the rest of the world in introducing these protections. Countries such as France, Belgium and Kenya all have some form of right-to-disconnect law in place. So why is Australia so far behind?

“There are many reasons for this,” explained Mr Neil. “One is that the physical and temporal dimensions of work and its organisation persisted for longer in Australia than in many other countries, largely because our system of industrial regulation encourages structural rigidity in the labour market.”

“Another is that organised labour is relatively weak in Australia, although the present federal government is changing that through legislative measures, much of the work that organised labour would otherwise do by negotiation and industrial action. A third reason is that, contrary to popular perception, as a society, we do not protect non-working time as jealously as do other countries, such as Germany and France. This is odd, given the leading role that Australia historically took to reduce working hours – see, for example, the eight-hour day movement,” said Mr Neil.

To prepare for the change, employers must be ready. While exactly what the protections will look like is still up in the air, leaders must still account for a potentially significant shift in processes.

Mr Neil continued: “The answer depends on the form that any legislative arrangements may take. If the legislation favours top-down, universal and prescriptive arrangements, employers and employees may have limited capacity to adapt a right to disconnect to their own circumstances.

“If, as is to be hoped, we follow the overseas experience of allowing scope for individual workplaces, and even individual employees, to make their own arrangements, then both employers and employees need to begin thinking about what it is they really want, and what would best work for them. I encourage employers and employees to get ahead of the wave.”

There has been a positive response from many regarding the benefits this legislation poses to employee wellbeing.

Ben Thompson, co-founder and chief executive of Employment Hero, agrees: “The proposed changes to industrial relations laws, particularly the ‘right to disconnect’, cast light on a very important topic work/life balance. While it’s critical to recognise that tech and communication tools have blurred the lines between work and personal time, it’s important to remember that flexibility can go both ways.

“Flexible work arrangements have provided employees with a greater sense of control and autonomy. The ability to adapt work hours to accommodate personal needs or preferences has been a significant benefit for many workers, particularly in the context of remote work and caregiving responsibilities. However, it’s crucial to ensure that this flexibility does not inadvertently lead to employees working more hours than they are compensated for, said Mr Thompson.

He concluded: “Clear and open communication is key to navigating this terrain. Employers and employees must engage in open dialogue to clarify expectations around availability outside traditional work hours. Employers can prepare policies around tech use outside of agreed working hours and encourage boundary setting. This includes the understanding that, unless expressly stated, after-hours communication does not warrant an immediate response. A balanced approach is required one that respects employees’ rights to disconnect while preserving the advantages of flexible work and creating less complexity for managers.”

The right to disconnect is a win for employee wellbeing
ian neil reb q5gpyj
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