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As of this Tuesday, Belgium has just passed a law allowing its government workers the right to “disconnect,” or, in other words, no longer have to answer any work emails, calls, etc. after work hours. Under this new law, federal/civil servants cannot be contacted in any shape and or form outside working hours unless there are circumstances that are “exceptional” or “unforeseen.” The rule also states that workers chosen to disconnect should not be disadvantaged at work for not wanting to answer work-related messages.
This decision aims to help define the already blurry line between work and personal life. Ever since the pandemic hit, many people have had to work from home and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between them. According to a study by Binder Dijker Otte (BDO) Belgium, four out of five Belgians (40% of whom work in managerial positions), said that they would like to continue working at least two or more days a week from home post-pandemic as they don’t have to deal with commuting and there’s also an increase in productivity. Petra De Sutter, the Belgian minister for public administration, says, that there is a downside to this. “The computer stays on, you keep reading the emails you receive on your smartphone,” De Sutter said. “To better protect people against this, we now give them the legal right to disconnect.” De Sutter explains that without the right to disconnect, workers will feel burnt out and stress will also be very high.
Belgium isn’t the first country in Europe to pass such laws to help workers. Back in 2012, the German company known as Volkswagen banned all German employees from accessing work emails after hours to avoid burnout. Similarly, in 2017, France passed a law that companies with more than 50 employees had to define specific hours when workers are allowed to not send or receive emails. The most recent case happened last year in Portugal, where employers with more than 10 employees can be fined for contacting workers off the clock, and companies must also help pay for expenses caused by remote working.
This trend is still going on as the European Parliament supported a resolution calling the European Commission to issue a European Union (EU) wide law to protect workers who wish to disconnect. Maltese EU member Alex Agius Saliba was one of those who helped pass this resolution and believes that it’s important that they don’t abandon the millions of European workers who feel like they need to always be available even after work hours. “Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update workers’ rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age,” stated Saliba.