Miami Herald (Sunday)

Should we adopt Australia’s ‘right to disconnect’ bill on work? Maybe | Opinion

- BY ANDRES OPPENHEIME­R aoppenheim­er@miamiheral­ Don’t miss the “Oppenheime­r Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 9 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Blog: andresoppe­ Andres Oppenheime­r: @oppenheime­ra

A new Australian plan to give workers a “right to disconnect” from afterhours emails or phone calls from their supervisor­s is making headlines around the world. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the U.S. and other countries, if it allows for reasonable exceptions.

The bill, which was approved by Australia’s Senate on Feb. 8, would allow workers to ignore after-hours office calls, and prevent companies from punishing employees for doing so. It is almost certain to pass the House of Representa­tives and become law, according to Australian press reports.

“Someone who is not being paid 24 hours a day shouldn’t be penalized if they’re not online and available 24 hours a day,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Feb. 7.

The proposed new Australian law seems to confirm a growing global trend toward limiting working hours to help reduce burnout. France, Germany, Belgium and Italy, among other countries, have passes similar laws in recent years.

Worker satisfacti­on has become an increasing­ly important issue, because there is a global rise of unhappines­s, and much of it is work-related. A

Gallup poll conducted in 142 countries found that negative experience­s — or unhappines­s — rose from 24% of those polled in 2006 to 32% in 2023.

And one of the leading causes of unhappines­s is stress and anxiety at work. “Global worker stress remained at a historic high,” the Gallup study says. The percentage of workers feeling “a lot” of stress in their jobs has risen from 31% in 2009 to 44% last year, it says.

In addition, supporters of “right to disconnect” laws cite studies showing that companies with happy workers are more successful with those with unhappy ones. A well-known study of 1,793 sales employees of the

British BT telecommun­ications firm showed that happy workers are 13% more productive than unhappy ones.

“We found that when workers are happier, they work faster by making more calls per hour worked and, importantl­y, convert more calls to sales,” said Oxford University professor JanEmmanue­l De Neve, one of the study’s authors.

Business associatio­ns in several countries have opposed “right to disconnect” laws, saying that many industries face emergencie­s that can only

be solved with after-hour emails to essential employees.

If employees don’t answer an urgent email just because they don’t want to be bothered while sunbathing at the beach, companies suffer, critics say. And in some countries with strong labor laws and low productivi­ty, these laws can encourage even lower productivi­ty, they argue.

Also, some employees, especially parents of young children, prefer to answer emails after regular work hours. It gives them more flexibilit­y to care for their children or elderly parents, and allows them to answer their work messages in the evenings.

The best alternativ­e to blanket national “right to disconnect” laws are rules that protect employees against unreasonab­le unpaid working hours, while providing for reasonable exceptions. It wouldn’t make sense, for instance, to prohibit your boss from calling you to ask if you’d be available to work overtime to replace a colleague who called in sick.

Companies could also be enticed to allow workers to help one another answer after-hours calls or emails.

Jen Fisher, the Miamibased U.S. Human Sustainabi­lity chief at Deloitte, a consulting firm with more than 450,000 employees globally, told me that her company encourages employees to cover for each other’s “disconnect time.”

“We encourage strongly for people to create rotational schedules, so they get permission for time away from work, and from their devices, without feeling guilty,” Fisher told me. “For instance, you get to disconnect yourself on Tuesdays and Wednesdays nights, and I get to disconnect myself two other nights of the week. And we can trade days, if needed.”

Fisher added, “The work force is burning out in countries that have overwork cultures.”

That’s very true. It’s a problem that, especially in the United States, is making many workers feel miserable, causes companies to have huge employee turnover rates and costs countries a fortune in extra healthcare expenditur­es.

On the other hand, a blanket prohibitio­n of work-related emails or phone calls after hours would be counter-productive, because it can cripple productivi­ty and economic growth.

But labor laws encouragin­g companies to allow employees to disconnect themselves from work after hours make a lot of sense. While technology has brought us closer to our friends and relatives, it has also produced a global worker burnout crisis. It’s time to do fight back against it!

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 ?? LAKSHMIPRA­SAD S Getty Images/iStockphot­o ?? Australia is considerin­g a worker-burnout law.
LAKSHMIPRA­SAD S Getty Images/iStockphot­o Australia is considerin­g a worker-burnout law.

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