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Working late is a thing of the past in Belgium. They now have a ‘right to disconnect’

A new law passed in Belgium allows civil servants to switch off work emails, texts and phone calls received out of hours, without fear of reprisals.

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A new law passed in Belgium allows civil servants to switch off work emails, texts and phone calls received out of hours, without fear of reprisals.

For many people, the pandemic-induced shift to remote working has blurred the line between home and work life, leaving them answering calls, texts and emails at all hours.

The legislation comes into effect on 1 February 2022 to protect the country’s 65,000 public-sector employees from exposure to being permanently on-call, although out-of-hours contact is permissible in exceptional circumstances. Plans are being discussed to extend the new laws to employees in the private sector.

It is hoped the new rules will help prevent burnout and reinforce the importance of establishing a work life balance, Belgium’s Public Administration Minister Petra De Sutter told the BBC.

Remote and disconnected

Some of the social changes brought about by the pandemic have redefined how and where many people work. And remote working has proved popular, leaving many people reluctant to return to full-time in-person office work.

More than 80% of Belgian employees – including 40% in managerial positions – across different parts of the economy said they would prefer to work from home at least two days each week, a national survey shows.

The lure of home office is reflected in other parts of the world, too. A survey of North Americans by job-listings site Flexjobs, found 65% of people who switched to remote working during the pandemic would prefer to keep working from home.

Almost three in five respondents said they would look for a new job if their current employer forced a return to the office. Just 2% said they would prefer to return to pre-pandemic full-time office life.

The absence of a commute and the expense associated with it were cited as key benefits of working from home, but working remotely is not without its drawbacks. More than a third of respondents said they found it difficult to unplug.

Belgium is the latest European country to offer employees a legal right to switch off once the workday is done.

The European Union (EU) defines the right to disconnect as “a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours”.

And while this right has not yet passed into EU law, a resolution passed in January 2021 called for an EU directive to be established.

This follows moves by several member states to establish legal precedents. France, seen by many as the pioneer in this area, enacted legislation in August 2016 allowing employees to switch off phones and other devices outside of set working hours. Companies with 50+ employees are obliged to draw up a “charter of good conduct” setting specific hours when staff can’t send or receive emails.

Portugal labels its work-life balance legislation the “right to rest”, with companies of 10 or more staff facing fines for contacting staff outside of set working hours. Workers with children below the age of eight are also permitted to work remotely under the new laws, which came into effect in November 2021.

Aside from legislation, a number of large companies have taken the initiative to protect their workers with multinational agreements supporting employees’ right to disconnect.

It seems that while laptops, tablets and smartphones allow us to communicate with anyone, anywhere and at any time, greater efficiency, reduced stress and a better work-life balance rests on us knowing when to switch them off.

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum. 

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