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Right to Disconnect: Can we have flexibility without overwork?

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Australia is poised to enact a new legislation granting employees the right to disregard unreasonable communications from their superiors outside of working hours, a move likely to draw global attention and perhaps envy from workers worldwide.

This “right to disconnect” forms a pivotal component of sweeping changes to industrial relations laws proposed by the Australian federal government through a parliamentary bill. 

The Labor party has declared that the bill has garnered support from the majority of senators.

Ben Thompson, Co-Founder and CEO, Employment Hero: “The proposed changes to industrial relations laws, particularly the ‘right to disconnect’, cast light on a very important topic. Work-life balance. While it’s critical to recognise that tech and communication tools have blurred the lines between work and personal time, it’s important to remember that flexibility can go both ways. 

“Flexible work arrangements have provided employees with a greater sense of control and autonomy. The ability to adapt work hours to accommodate personal needs or preferences has been a significant benefit for many workers, particularly in the context of remote work and caregiving responsibilities. However, it’s crucial to ensure that this flexibility does not inadvertently lead to employees working more hours than they are compensated for.

“Clear and open communication is key to navigating this terrain. Employers and employees must engage in open dialogue to clarify expectations around availability outside traditional work hours. Employers can prepare policies around tech use outside of agreed working hours and encourage boundary setting. This includes the understanding that, unless expressly stated, after-hours communication does not warrant an immediate response. A balanced approach is required – one that respects employees’ rights to disconnect while preserving the advantages of flexible work and creating less complexity for managers.”

Under the proposed legislation, employees feeling unduly contacted or pressured can address the issue with their employer initially. Should the matter remain unresolved, they have the option to escalate it to the Fair Work Commission, potentially resulting in fines for non-compliance by the employer. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese champions these changes, asserting they will safeguard workers’ rights and foster a healthier work-life balance.

“What we are simply saying is that someone who isn’t being paid 24 hours a day shouldn’t be penalized if they’re not online and available 24 hours a day,” Albanese explained to reporters.

The bill has also gained support from opposition quarters. The left-wing Greens initially proposed similar legislation last year. Barbara Pocock, the Greens’ spokesperson on workplace relations, emphasizes that the intention is not to disrupt existing arrangements but rather empower vulnerable workers to voice their concerns without fear of repercussions.

Greens leader Adam Bandt echoes this sentiment, stressing that time away from work should not be at the discretion of employers. “Australians work an average of six weeks unpaid overtime each year. That equated to more than A$92 billion ($60.13 billion) in unpaid wages across the economy. That time is yours. Not your boss,” Bandt asserted on social media.

Currently, analogous laws granting employees the right to disconnect exist in countries such as France, Spain, and other European Union nations, allowing workers to switch off their official devices after work hours.

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