"Right to disconnect" bills are wending their ways through local and national legislatures around the world, but despite their noble intentions, these proposed laws tend to be a "one size fits all" solution to employee burnout—one that might not respond to the individualized needs of employees. Structured flexibility, however, can implement the same boundaries while allowing for varying work schedules.
Recently, New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal proposed a "right to disconnect" bill for the Big Apple, according to the Associated Press. This rule would fine employers $250 if they require staff to answer calls and emails after hours and would require companies with at least 10 employees to inform their staff of their right to not respond to after-hours communications, to be free of retaliation, and to bring complaints to NYC's Department of Consumer Affairs. Furthermore, an employee fired for not answering a work email after hours could receive $2,500 and may even get their job back. Meanwhile, some companies are setting their own "right to disconnect" rules in which email servers are set to block the sending and receiving of messages to and from certain employees during designated times.
These policies respond to the rise of "telepressure." In a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association's Center for Organizational Excellence, more than half of employed adults reported checking work messages before and after work, when they're home sick, and at least once a day over the weekend; and 44 percent said they respond to emails and messages while on vacation.
But restricting or shutting off email during conventional "off" hours could be detrimental to those people who are "on" during unconventional hours. Employees using the TimeShift™ flexibility type, for example, don't work from 9 to 5. They set their own schedule, often in order to capitalize on hours of peak productivity.
In this way, "right to disconnect" laws seem to fall short of leveraging productivity for all employees. Instead, we at Werk advise employers to use our standard language of flexibility to establish boundaries and expectations from the get-go—so that employees know their work and their life will be compatible.
"Having explicit discussions about expectations for 'on' versus 'off' times is the most effective way to help get telepressure under control," Larissa Barber, a Northern Illinois University associate psychology professor and a telepressure researcher, tells the AP. "Some employees may need to respond only during the day while others prefer evening or other specific windows of time."
And if everyone is forced onto the same hours—by "right to disconnect" laws or by company policy—the night owls and the early birds among us might suffer the same burnout these rules intend to counteract. Such rules are a fine stopgap to the telepressure issue; but ultimately, structured flexibility is a more sustainable, individualized solution.