What do a Kenyan lawmaker, a restaurant manager in France and a Portuguese minister have in common?
When homes turned into offices during the pandemic, Kenyan lawmaker Samson Kiprotich Cherargei realized work had ballooned past the country’s mandated maximum of 52 hours per week over six days. Under a new bill set to be read in Parliament this month, employers in Kenya might be blocked from contacting workers after hours or on weekends.
“In the era of the virtual office, it is important to create laws to mark the shift from the physical office to protect mental health, avoid burnout and ensure family time,” he said.
Several other countries, mostly in Europe, have laws protecting employees from being bothered by their bosses after work hours.
France, famous for its 35-hour workweek, pioneered such a law when in 2017 it granted workers the right to ignore work communications outside of working hours.
“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog,” Socialist Party parliamentarian Benoit Hamon told the BBC at the time.
It has become a way of life in France. Gwendoline Dessaux, 37, a manager at a restaurant and climbing center in the city of Strasbourg, does not take her phone on vacation and this year instructed her staff not to contact her when she’s off work.
“I am entirely yours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday, but for the rest of the time, leave me alone,” Dessaux said she told her employees.
The only exceptions: a health emergency or if a fire breaks out.
Italy, Belgium, Spain and Ireland have since followed suit, as did Portugal in late 2021. Ana Catarina Mendes, the Portuguese minister for parliamentary affairs, said via email that the pandemic had made the need for such a law urgent.
While it was too soon to assess the impact of the legislation, she said, companies, workers and supervisory bodies are now more aware of this “new reality.”
The specifics of “right to disconnect” laws differ from country to country. In Belgium, the right has been afforded to government workers, while the Portuguese rules apply to companies with more than 10 employees, and violators are penalized with fines.
Under the Kenyan proposal, which still needs to be debated in Parliament, workers will get paid extra if they respond to employers outside work hours, and employees are protected from retribution if they choose to ignore such contact.
In Canada, the province of Ontario has such a policy, and Australia’s Queensland state in December granted similar digital disconnection rights to teachers.
Experts say it is more important than ever for workers to be able to detach from their work given the fatigue and anxiety generated by the pandemic.
Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, a management professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal who recently co-authored an article on the right to disconnect, said via email that detachment from work means being able to engage in another activity without being guilty about work not done.
“The problem is that when people feel guilty or ruminate about work after work hours, they can never really rest and replenish their ‘reservoir of resources’, to come back to work energized, committed, and creative,” which, she said, are factors that explain phenomena such as the Great Resignation and quiet quitting.
But in countries such as the United States and India, this debate has not found widespread traction. At the New York City Council, a bill that would make it unlawful for private employers to require employees to check and respond to emails during nonwork hours did not pass in 2018.
In the United States, debate over the issue is stymied for political rather than cultural reasons, said Cristina Banks, the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California at Berkeley.
“The political divide we are experiencing today does not lend itself to meaningful and honest debate about worker protections in this area,” she said via email, adding that there is still a myth that a comfortable work life would make workers lazy.
“This is wrong as the research literature has shown for decades that the greatest productivity comes from workers who are healthy, feel safe, and have well-being,” Banks said.
In Kenya, an employers’ association said the proposed law would end up causing indiscipline in workplaces, local media reported. But for some workers, it could create an environment not only conducive to better work, but also a longer stay at a company.
Daniel Mwangi, 37, quit his job as a retail manager in Nairobi in 2021 after being fed up with 4 a.m. emails and 9 p.m. check-in calls from his boss. He had begun to lose weight and felt anxious much of the time. The next job he took wasn’t much different, and he eventually transitioned to self-employment.
“I am a big supporter of the right to disconnect. People focus better when they destress and aren’t on call 24/7,” he said. “I am much happier now.”