The Right to Disconnect

It all started in France and has slowly made its way to the United States, with the latest development being New York’s consideration for a “Right to Disconnect” bill. What exactly does the bill entail and what are its pros and cons?



More Connected Than Ever

With electronic devices attached to most of us 24/7, it’s no wonder that many workers report that they find it hard to disconnect from work. It used to be that you would go to the office, do your job, and when you left the office, aside from a phone call that might detail some urgent matter that needed addressing, you were done. Then came email, and not far behind smart phones and with them a way for us to check our work matters anytime we wanted. Day or night. While this can be great, and in some jobs it may even be a necessity, for many workers it’s unnecessary and can be counterproductive.

The constant connection to work and feeling the need to be on call for every little matter that arises is quickly leading employees to experience burnout and work fatigue. It’s no secret that technology and social media are making us as a society more anxious. Psychology Today reports regularly on the connection between technology and anxiety. When you add the weight of worrying that you might lose your job if you don’t respond to messages outside of the workday, technology anxiety can reach a whole new level. Many proponents of the bill cite burnout and sleep disruption as symptoms of the need to be always on.

What’s the downside of such a bill?

Part of reducing employee burnout and managing mental health, includes helping employees manage a work/life balance. Critics of the proposed law though, state that managing such a balance is the onus of the employee and not the employer. One vocal opponent of the bill is Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of Partnership for New York City. In an NBC interview, she referenced the bill as a “naïve response to the notion of a work-life balance.”

Will such a bill even make a difference? Many workers don’t seem to think so. In fact, 22% of respondents in an survey reported they do not think their boss would respect such a law. To be clear, the law does NOT stipulate that employers cannot contact you after hours–it simply gives you protection if you choose not to respond to your employers after hours calls, texts, or emails.

Many questions also arise regarding the Fair Labor Standards Act, and how that would be impacted or utilized if such a bill were to pass. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that companies pay employees for all hours worked. How are employees going to track these hours, which can sometimes amount to just a few minutes at a time? And if a company is already complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act, why would there even be a need for a bill stipulating that employees can disconnect after the workday?

Employment attorneys, Paul Castronovo, ESQ & Tom McKinney, ESQ both bring up a good point regarding the complexity of trying to govern this bill. In a recent blog post they share, “Today is an age of constant communication, and while not all situations may be deemed serious, things happen suddenly a lot more often than they used to. This promises to create much confusion over just what an emergency is: when does an event become ‘sudden and serious’ enough? Definitions are sure to differ from employer to employer, not to mention from employer to employee.”

The proposed bill exempts small companies with fewer than 10 employees, as well as employees that have jobs that specifically require in the job description that they are available off hours. However, for those that are paid hourly and find themselves spending the better part of their evenings responding to emails and putting out fires on their bosses behalf, this bill could be just what they need to ease the fear of losing their job if they set necessary boundaries.