A few weeks into Italy’s first coronavirus lockdown in March last year, Andrea Pestarino started setting a 5.30pm alarm as a reminder it was time to turn off his laptop and go play football with his kids in the garden.
The 42-year-old innovation manager said the trick helped him strike a better work-life balance after his engineering firm’s sudden move to remote work pushed him to spend longer hours glued to the computer screen.
“At the beginning switching off was difficult, as I felt guilty for being away from the office and this prompted me to do more,” Pestarino said by phone. “I used to bring forward things that I could have easily done the next day.”
He was hardly the only one.
Research in several countries has shown the pandemic-induced shift to remote working has resulted in longer working hours for millions of people, fanning a long-standing debate on the need to grant employees a right to disconnect.
In a British poll released by trade union Prospect earlier this month, 35% of normally office-based workers said their mental health had degraded since they started working from home during the pandemic.
Of those, more than 40% link the problem to being unable to switch off from work.
The study was part of a call to British lawmakers to include the right to disconnect – giving employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal work hours – in an upcoming employment bill expected to be published this year.
“For millions of us, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, with remote technology meaning it is harder to fully switch off,” Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect, said in emailed comments.
Scientific studies have linked long working hours and the lack of weekend rest to an array of ailments including depression, anxiety, sleep impairment and heart disease.
Research also suggests that working more does not mean working better, as fatigue blurs judgment and hampers people’s ability to communicate and recognise others’ emotions.
As businesses increasingly embrace remote work as a long-term solution, with many planning to keep it in place after the pandemic, some governments have moved to regulate a right to disconnect.
Ireland introduced a legal right for employees to not respond to emails, telephone calls or other messages during non-work hours from April 1.
The European Union’s parliament backed a similar proposal in January and Canada is also mulling right-to-disconnect regulations.
‘We need new rules’
Some companies are taking their own steps to help employees leave work behind at the end of the day.
In March, Italy’s motorway operator Autostrade signed a deal with trade unions allowing employees to switch off for 90 minutes during the working day to help children with schooling during lockdown.
Also last month, Italian engineering and certification services group Rina, where Pestarino works, granted all staff a right to disconnect.
Under the deal, remote workers are encouraged to work a maximum of eight hours anytime between 7am and 8pm. Outside this window, employees should turn off their devices, said Rina’s head of human resources Alessandro Galvani.
Late-night emails are discouraged by a pop-up notification asking the writer to think twice before hitting send, he said by phone.
Corralling working hours was important to prevent remote-work flexibility from sliding into overwork, Galvani added.
“In Italy, people are often judged based on how long they work, rather than on what they do,” he said. “If we want to change that we need new rules, (because) change doesn’t happen on its own.”
Earlier attempts to legislate the right to disconnect suggest the new rules do not always work out as expected.
France approved a law in 2016 requiring companies with more than 50 employees to set out when workers should not send or reply to email and phone calls.
But in a survey last year by UGICT-CGT, which represents engineers, managers and tech workers within the CGT trade union, almost 80% of remote workers said during the pandemic they enjoyed no right to disconnect.
This is because firms often come up with time charts that do not fit all staff – some might have to call clients in different time zones, for example – and tend to put business before compliance with disconnecting policies, said Matthieu Trubert, a CGT representative at Microsoft.
“Companies’ principles on disconnecting... work in theory, but not easily in real life,” he said.
Strict enforcement mechanisms, like switching off servers to make it basically impossible to send email after office hours – a strategy adopted nine years ago by automaker Volkswagen in Germany – can also be problematic, say mental health experts.
A 2020 study by the University of Sussex in Britain found that email bans could be detrimental to workers with high levels of anxiety or who need more flexibility, like carers and part-time employees – and could end up causing more stress than good. Lead author Emma Russell, who teaches occupational psychology at the university, said it was better for managers to lead by example and take other less invasive measures, like asking staff to list when they are contactable in their email signatures.
Nayla Glaise, a CGT delegate for consultancy firm Accenture, said companies need to question the way their workflow is organised and include employees in a discussion on how to change it – for example, by better defining what can be considered as “urgent”.
“You can have the most beautiful (right-to-disconnect) agreement posted on the wall. But if it’s not alive... then it’s useless,” she said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation