Due to a new “right to disconnect” rule that went into effect in Belgium on February 1, 2022, federal supervisors are no longer allowed to call civil personnel after working hours. The new rule allows Belgian government officials to disregard emails and phone calls received outside of their contractual hours, releasing approximately 65,000 federal employees from their duties after their shift is through. According to the Brussels Times, the move is intended to prevent “excessive job stress and burnout” among federal employees. “The computer stays on, and you keep reading your emails on your smartphone,” De Sutter explained. “In order to better protect people, we’ve given them the legal right to disconnect.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE THE “RIGHT TO DISCONNECT”? The freedom to disconnect is not unique to Belgium; it was introduced in France in 2017 as a result of multiple French Supreme Court decisions, one of which declared in 2004 that “the fact that [the employee] was not reachable on his cell phone outside business hours cannot be considered wrongdoing.” Since then, it’s gained a lot of traction in places where there’s a lot of unpaid overtime, excessive workloads, stress, and burnout. While many organizations that do not have a right to disconnect law may already release their employees at the end of the day, the rule is intended to help workers who do not have this option.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE THE RIGHT TO DISCONNECT? The mixing of office and home meant the barrier between work and leisure became thinner than ever before during the pandemic, when WFH experienced a major spike across the globe. Belgium intends to provide civil personnel with two important rights by enacting the right to disconnect:
The right to not be required to work outside of normal working hours on a regular basis. The right not to be penalized for declining to labor outside of normal working hours. It also prohibits employees from pressuring their coworkers to work outside of normal business hours by forbidding them from contacting or calling them after the workday has ended.
So far, so good for the overworked civil servant, but there are a few limitations to the new rule. A manager may still contact employees outside of work hours under the new regulation if “extraordinary and unforeseen circumstances” exist, but because these have yet to be defined, some have expressed concerns that this could lead to rule-bending.
The rest of the world is watching to see how the new law is implemented in the civil sector and whether it will motivate the private sector to follow suit. Aside from hazy definitions, De Sutter is adamant about the right to disconnect’s objectives: “The measure’s spirit must be central: the employee’s family, rest, and holidays must be respected.”