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What the ‘right to disconnect’ outside of work hours could mean for you

Unions are pushing for more Australian industries to have the  ‘right to disconnect’ from work emails, texts, and phone calls outside of work hours.  

What is the Right?  

The right to disconnect exists in many jurisdictions around the world, particularly in Europe. 

Ireland recently legislated a new code of conduct giving workers the right to disconnect. The code includes the right to not routinely perform work outside of normal hours and not be penalised for it. It also includes an obligation to respect the disconnection rights of colleagues to enjoy leave and rest days by not routinely contacting the employee outside of normal working hours.  

Last week, Victorian Police staff won the ‘right to disconnect’. Apart from in the case emergencies or for welfare checks, police staff are not to be contacted outside of work hours. Now, large public sector unions are looking to give workers similar rights.  

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus recently said that “It is essential that working people be able to disconnectIf work invades all hours of your life and you cannot disconnect, it is a recipe for serious problems for both the worker and the employer.” 

Some unions are calling for the Government to implement the right to disconnect the right to disconnect to the National Employment Standards, whereas other unions are wanting it implemented in Awards.  

Modern Changes to Work 

The increasingly digital landscape has blurred the boundaries between personal and professional life. The trend of accessing work emails from your personal phone or laptop outside of work hours is a classic example.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the right to disconnect because millions of Australians are working from homeMany remote workers find themselves working from their study, dining table or couch outside of the standard 9am-5pm work hours. 

In addition, some industries have cultures where employees feel obligated to routinely work longer hours than those agreed under their employment agreement. Indeed, many individual contracts have provisions that have the expectation that workers will work above their normal working hours longer hours from time to time. 

Disconnecting is a WHS Issue 

Currently, there is not a legal responsibility on employers to offer employees the right to disconnect.

However, under Work Health and Safety laws, employers have a legal duty of care for the health and safety of their employees and others at the workplace “so far as is reasonably practicable”. This duty of care extends to ensuring employees are not overworked by taking reasonable steps to ensure the employee’s working hours are not excessive and meet workplace health and safety requirements.

Part of this duty might include fostering a workplace culture that does not expect workers to be available 24/7 because switching off is crucial for employee’s mental health. Studies have also shown that when employees get appropriate rest outside of work hours, they are more productive during work hours.

Segelov Taylor Lawyers Can Help

Workers who are concerned about excessive work hours or flexible work arrangements should contact their trade union or an expert employment lawyer.

Segelov Taylor principal David Taylor is an accredited specialist in employment law. If you have concerns about your current employment status or other issues related to employment, please get in touch by email: david@segelovtaylor.com.au or by phone: (02) 8880 0500.

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