Belgian civil servants will soon have the legal right to ignore calls from their employer outside of their working hours, under new legislation to protect workers against overwork and burnout.
From 1er February 2022, a “right to disconnect” will be introduced in Belgium, which will effectively prohibit civil service bosses from contacting their employees when they are not at work, except in cases of emergency or “exceptional” circumstances.
Fight against burn-out
According to the Belgian daily From Morgen, the new rules were set out by Petra De Sutter, the Belgian Minister of Civil Service and Public Enterprises, in a letter to officials.
In her letter, the Minister explains that it is necessary to take more protective measures to protect employees against excessive stress and burn-out, and that allowing them a complete disconnection allowed “positive results in terms of well-being , such as better concentration, better recovery and a more sustainable energy level ”.
The Minister adds that burnout has particularly become a concern in this context of the growth of teleworking, with employers tending to spend more time on their computers after work, and to read their professional emails on their smartphones.
The new rules on the right to disconnect will initially apply only to federal officials, but the legislation is expected to gradually expand to cover the private sector across the country.
A European trend
Belgium joins France and several European countries, which are more and more numerous to adopt such legislation to better protect their workforce from abusive leaders.
France was the first country to integrate this right for companies into its labor law. Thus, since the 1er January 2017, the law guarantees “the establishment by the company of regulatory mechanisms for the use of digital tools, with a view to ensuring respect for rest and leave times as well as for personal and family life” , in order to ensure the “full exercise by the employee of his right to disconnect”.
Following the same pattern, Ireland has introduced a code of new practices for employers, since April 2021, which stipulates that employees have the right to be disconnected from their work at the end of the day, and that they are not not required to respond to inquiries about their employment in their free time. These provisions include any communication with managers or colleagues, and employers cannot penalize their employees if they refuse to deal with work matters in their free time.
Portugal adopted similar directives at the same time as Ireland. The Portuguese right to disconnect provides for fines for employers who contact their employees during their free time. Likewise, the legislation provides that employers must contribute to expenses linked to teleworking, in particular internet or electricity bills.
More broadly reforming labor law
However, we do not yet know exactly how these new rules will apply in Belgium or what constitutes an “exceptional” excuse allowing an employer to contact his employee during his free time. Nevertheless, Petra De Sutter specifies in her letter that civil servants “will not suffer any disadvantage if they do not answer the phone or do not read the messages related to their work outside normal working hours”.
Belgium is also reportedly considering switching to the four-day working week as part of broader labor law reforms, also driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Politico, the Belgians would see their weekend extended by an additional day, but they would have to continue to work the same number of hours per week. The four-day week would also be applicable only to Belgians who work between 38 and 40 hours per week.
Telework in question
The pitfalls of the rapid rise in telework have also been recognized by leaders on the international scene, and the European Parliament is now trying to push through new legislation by the European Commission that would grant workers across the EU right to disconnect protections – but that should take time.
However, even if the European Union votes this new legislation, it will not be applicable to the United Kingdom. Yet a poll carried out by the Prospect union in 2021 found that two-thirds of UK employees supported a right to disconnect. Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, calls on the British government to follow the example of Belgium, but also of Scotland, which announced similar provisions for its civil servants last December, in order to “push back the culture of permanence and to set new rules to make hybrid work a success ”.
The Prospect poll also found that 35% of UK teleworkers reported deteriorating work-related mental health during the pandemic. Andrew Pakes explains that mandatory telework has made many workers feel like they are “sleeping in the office”.
“Putting rules in place to limit telecommuting or hybrid working would help workers disconnect and rejuvenate, especially if we have to spend a lot more time working from home in the future. If we don’t meet these challenges, we risk a well-being crisis. [au travail et une augmentation] burnouts, which would be bad for workers, bad for employers and bad for productivity. “
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