The right to switch off

While technological improvements and increases in flexible working arrangements have their benefits, they are also creating the everlasting working day, which is creating problems for a human workforce. Now a new ‘right to disconnect’ movement – today’s high-tech equivalent of the union movement’s protection of the working day – is gaining followers promoting the idea that managers shouldn’t contact employees outside of working hours or on leave or rest days.

The issue was brought to light recently when The Police Association of Victoria included a ‘right to disconnect’ clause in their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that outlined that employees cannot be contacted outside of work hours unless in ‘emergency situations or genuine welfare matters’. The conversation has been happening worldwide for a while, with France even legislating the right to disconnect in 2016 and other countries such as Germany and Italy following suit with their own laws and policies.

“This is certainly an issue in relation to mental health – anecdotally I’ve seen a much higher rate of complaints about the inability to switch off over the last 12–18 months as working arrangements have become more flexible and some are forced to be always potentially available,” says Dr Mark Deady, a postdoctoral research fellow working at the Australian Workplace Mental Health Research Program.

The rise of this issue can be largely attributed to the shake-up in working arrangements that occurred as a result of COVID-19. With so many people working from home and proving they are capable of being reached and carrying out work tasks while at home, this makes it harder to say no when asked to complete a task outside of office hours.

However, this ‘always on’ attitude can have some damaging consequences. Dr Deady believes that not being able to switch off from work is “an experience that is likely to result in burn out, overall low mood and a poor sense of wellbeing, which can of course lead to depression and anxiety.”

This presents an issue not just for employees, but for managers as well. “The risk of burnout and potential mental health consequences that can follow on from that could lead to less presenteeism and decreased productivity,” says Dr Deady.

This makes it an important consideration for managers, as to whether pushing their employees beyond working hours is doing more good or harm. Dr Deady sees this an important consideration moving forward: “We’ll start to see this come up as a potential issue in workplaces that do mental health audits and care about maintaining a mentally healthy workplace.”

“This ‘always on’ attitude is likely to result in burn out, overall low mood and a poor sense of wellbeing.”