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Digital overload and the right to disconnect: the Commission must act now!

As Commission staff, we are now approaching one full year of compulsory teleworking, with no clear prospects as to when we will be able to go back to the office. Many of you contacted us at Generation 2004 to share your concerns regarding what this ‘new way of working’ means in practice: sitting more hours in front of the computer, being forever reachable [1], reading emails at midnight or having to participate in meetings starting well beyond normal working hours. Additionally, issues that in the past were dealt with through an in-person chat (remember those?) or a physical meeting now require the use of electronic means, thus leading to more virtual meetings, more emails, more instant messages. This creates an increasing ‘digital overload’, linked to constant connectedness, the continuous beeping and buzzing of digital devices, the perceived – or imposed – need to multitask 24/7. This is already taking a toll on productivity, creativity and the quality of relationships in the workplace, and can lead to a feeling of loss of control, difficulty to concentrate and a strong impression of being overwhelmed by an ever-increasing workload.

Not to mention the additional burden of caring for children when the schools, crèches or kindergartens are closed, of home-schooling and of other family commitments made heavier by the COVID-19 pandemic. This care burden disproportionately affects women, as the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) reported in its 2020 study [2] (pp. 22-24).

The study shows that extensive telework significantly blurs work-life boundaries, as in their surveys, respondents who worked from home more often reported working in their free time, especially when there are children in the household. Moreover, they were less likely to feel they were doing a useful job and more often reported high workload and feeling isolated. Therefore, the study concludes that it is ‘even more pressing to introduce ‘right to disconnect’ initiatives, in order to avoid large segments of workers being at risk of physical and emotional exhaustion.’ (p. 4)

Generation 2004 has been calling on the administration to set out a right to disconnect for many months now

We at Generation 2004 anticipated these developments by listening to the many staff members who contacted us on these issues. Therefore, we started raising them during the first wave of the pandemic in the social dialogue meetings with DG HR, and in July 2020 the Generation 2004 Steering Committee discussed the right to disconnect under the framework of its opinion to the Board of Generation 2004 on the New HR Strategy. The final document, as approved by the board, was sent to the director-general [3] of DG HR, Ms Ingestad.

In this document we call for the introduction of a right to disconnect, which should be explicitly recognised and effectively implemented to avoid the well-documented adverse health effects of being constantly connected and reachable all day, every day. To this effect, an appropriate timeframe should be set where work-related emails and calls are not allowed – unless truly exceptional circumstances require it. Meetings – whether virtual or in person – should not be organised outside normal working hours or during lunch-breaks, unless truly exceptional circumstances require it. More broadly, we called for a digital code of conduct setting out and implementing basic rules to appropriately frame remote interactions. All this with a view to regulate working hours and protect the rights of workers, in accordance with the Working time directive [4], the European pillar of social rights [5], and the Charter of Fundamental Rights [6], that guarantee all workers the right to limit their working hours and protect them against health and safety risks, including those related to long and irregular hours of work.

European Parliament: The right to disconnect should be a fundamental right

On 21 January 2021, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution [7] containing recommendations to the Commission on the right to disconnect. The EP calls for the right to disconnect to become a fundamental right for workers all over Europe.

In the resolution, the EP underlines the risks linked to the increasing use of digital tools for work purposes, including ‘greater workload, longer or unpredictable working hours, and an ‘always on’ culture. These can encroach on workers’ fundamental rights, fair working conditions, health and safety at work, work-life balance and gender equality.’

It also emphasise that ‘excessive use of technological devices can aggravate phenomena such as isolation, anxiety, depression, burnout, techno-addiction, sleep disorders and musculoskeletal disorders.’ In this context, the right to disconnect should ‘be seen as an important social policy instrument at EU level to ensure the protection of workers’ rights.’

The EP stresses that outside working hours workers should have the right to switch off digital devices without facing any consequence. Thus, as the right to disconnect is not explicitly enshrined in EU law, the EP calls on the Commission to propose a legislative framework to establish minimum requirements for remote work across the EU in order to clarify working conditions and ensure that teleworkers have the same the rights, workload and performance standards of other comparable workers.

Employers should therefore be obliged to provide workers with sufficient information on their right to disconnect, in particular how and when they can switch off digital tools for work purposes, including monitoring or surveillance tools, how working time is recorded, the employer’s health and safety assessment, and the means of protection against adverse treatment and right of redress.

Now is the time to act!

Once again, we call on the Commission to listen to its staff, to the European Parliament and to scientists and set out a right to disconnect as soon as possible, in order to protect the health and well-being of its staff and set an example for all employers in Europe. For this right to become effective, we cannot wait for the implementation of the New HR Strategy: the negative effects of this constant connectedness coupled with the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic are already taking a heavy toll on staff. Even though we have not yet been provided with the data on burnout and long-term illnesses that we have been requesting for months, we know that a surge in burnout, depression and anxiety-related conditions was observed among Commission staff. Many more are probably suffering in silence, for fear of discrimination and stigma.

The time to act is now, and – as always – Generation 2004 is ready to contribute to the urgent work needed to set out the right to disconnect for staff. For this, we request the urgent opening of a social dialogue with DG HR on the right to disconnect.

As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to contact us [8].

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[1] Update: at 24.3.2021 XXI information meeting on coronavirus this issue was again raised with HR.