Hours after you log off for the day your phone dings.

Maybe it’s an email or a message in Slack or Teams.

Sure you’ve already clocked off, but what’s the harm in just taking a peek?

You check the message: it’s from your boss and it looks serious.

Even though you were never required to look at the message – it’s after hours after all – you now feel faced with a choice: either log back in remotely to start fixing the problem or spend all night thinking about the minor crisis you will have to deal with in the morning.

This is the scenario French lawmakers tried to outlaw in 2017 when they amended to the country’s labour laws to enshrine a ‘right to disconnect’ for workers.

The legislation requires companies implement “mechanisms to regulate the use of digital tools” to ensure employees get proper rest, leave, and a balanced personal and family life.

The laws are either enacted through collective bargaining (via a relevant union) or by the employer drawing up a charter about its processes to that ensure employees aren’t always expected online.

Some companies have taken steps toward employees’ right to disconnect without a legal mandate, like German car manufacturer Volkswagen which implemented a policy 10 years ago that stopped its mail server from delivering email to workers after hours.

Although no such law currently exists in Australia, the union representing the Victorian Police Force struck a deal last year to ensure its workers are given the time off they deserve.

In the case of Victoria Police, officers can no longer be called when they are off-duty unless the matter is an emergency – no more quickly checking in on a case or asking for advice.

But for many Australian workers, the potential for being always online remains high – especially with work from home arrangements becoming more permanent.

Penny Williams, a senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology’s business school, told Information Age there has been a “recalibration” of working hours in recent years, not just in the last 12 months of working from home.

“Certainly there are situations where employees are unable to disconnect from their work, particularly in the current work from home environment where working hours have extended,” she said.

“There is an increasing expectation for employees to be available when at desk even when working from home.”

A nation of workaholics

Australians, despite our world famous laissez-faire outlook on life, tend to work long hours.

The OECD’s Better Life Index puts Australia above average when it comes to long working weeks with 13 per cent of employees working very long (50 or more) hours a week.

For comparison, in France, where companies with over 20 employees can only ask for 35-hour working weeks, only 7.7 per cent of employees say they work long hours.

Longer working hours means less time spent enjoying other aspects of life and Australians are left with less than the average 15 hours per day for personal care (like eating and sleeping) or leisure.

While the amount of time online may have been exacerbated due to the pandemic, Williams said the blurring of work and life has been gradually increasing over time.

“People are working longer hours, they’re experiencing greater work intensification, and are finding it difficult to balance the boundaries between work life and life outside of work,” she said.

“The right to disconnect puts the onus back on the employer to think about when they expect employees to work and acknowledge that, for individuals to perform well at work, they also need some time off.”

Dionne Niven, Chief People Officer at Sydney-based hotel guest acquisition service SiteMinder, said the global company became increasingly mindful of its employees’ needs to disconnect when COVID-19 disrupted normal office business.

“We did a fair bit of training with employees and brought in specialists to talk about how to switch off at the end of the day,” Niven told Information Age.

“Simple things like putting a reminder in their diary to help remember to switch off. And we brought in daily meditation and yoga classes to encourage people to take some personal time outside of work.”

The need for flexibility

Niven stressed the need for communicating with employees about how to manage the pressure of working from home and the risks of constant connectivity and that blanket policies may not be the best way to manage one’s right to disconnect.

“What works for you, and your barriers and boundaries, is not necessarily what works for me,” she said.

“Employees who’ve got kids might have found themselves with some much-needed flexibility when working from home full-time.

“They may log off around 3.30pm to do the school pick, come home, do dinner, bath, and bed then log back on at night.

“Other people might log on a bit later in the morning and finish a bit later at night.”

The important thing, Niven said, was to have control over when you check messages and emails if you’re inclined to do so after traditional working hours.

“I have my notifications and alerts turned off after hours,” she said. “So in the evenings if I’m checking Slack or emails, I’m doing it when it works for me.

“That means I can sit down for dinner with my husband and enjoy that time without the sound of my phone constantly pinging.”