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The Right to Disconnect Is Afforded to All Workers, Whether Your Company Likes It or Not

FYI, it’s your right to ignore your boss’ calls and texts after work.
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The Internet is quickly becoming the bane of every burned-out employee and student’s existence. 

As we’ve switched to remote working and e-learning setups, the lines between personal time and work have become conspicuously muddled. Though increased flexibility with work may have been a silver lining, it also means most of our news and communication channels have been dependent on being online, making it almost impossible to log off. Whether it’s replying to an important e-mail while you’re out grocery shopping or being in a video conference as you’re cooking dinner in the kitchen, is there ever really a chance for us to disconnect? 

And are we even allowed to? 

What is the right to disconnect?

The “right to disconnect” is essentially the right of employees to disregard work-related communications after office hours without penalties. Addressing the issue has been in motion for years, and countries have been finding ways to incorporate the practice into lawwith more and more employees being burned out with the new remote setup, tackling the problem has never been more crucial.

It sounds like a luxury in a time of widespread WFH, but what most don’t realize is that we are actually allowed to have lives outside of work, school, and our phones. It’s called the right to disconnect, and it’s something the burned-out masses need to know. 

“Answering or ignoring texts, emails from employers after working hours is a voluntary engagement of an employee, and they are not obliged to respond or not. The right to disconnect is a choice of an employee,” Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III said in an interview with PhilStar.

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But there is progress. Quezon City Representative Winston Castelo authored House Bill 4721, a bill that aims to amend the Labor Code of the Philippines with an update that keeps up with the demands of the evolving workforce. The bill obliges employers to “establish the hours when employees are not supposed to send or answer work-related emails, texts, or calls,” with a set of conditions that are subject to the rules provided by the Department of Labor and Employment. Since it’s still a bill, agreements currently depend on the discretion of companies. 

Several multinational companies took a firmer stance by putting company agreements in place to secure their employees’ right to disconnect. Volkswagen, for instance, implements a strict rule that non-management employees reportedly cannot access their email on their smartphones between 6:15 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. 

But we’re still behind the first-world countries that are experimenting with the right to disconnect legislation. The first legislation related to the right to disconnect happened in France in 2016. Other countries in the EU then followed suit, like Italy and Spain. Germany also currently implements similar TRD practices, yet keeps negotiations only between company stakeholders. 

However, the country leading the charge on this front is Ireland. We can certainly take notes from Ireland, the first country to introduce a Code of Practice centered on the new work-from-home setup. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) published the code into effect last April 1, 2021, and aims to preserve work-life balance while protecting all workers. 

These are the three key insights from the WRC code, and it’s so simple and straightforward that it’s about time other countries followed suit.

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1| the right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours; 

2| the right to not be penalized for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; and 

3| the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (e.g., by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours).

Though some governments have been trying to enact similar laws to pave the way for a proper work-life balance, completely disconnecting during a pandemic isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Actually, it’s quite complicated.  

Can the right to disconnect co-exist with the new normal setup?

“Employees and employers know that there’s time for connection and so does a time for disconnection. It’s always up for the employees to oblige themselves to work even after office hours,” Bello said.

In general, a lot of Filipinos aren’t even aware of the right to disconnect. When asked about the topic with colleagues from various fields and industries, they seemed to have interesting takes.

Angelo Serrano, a legal intern at a law firm, agrees that employers shouldn’t punish employees for not fulfilling a task outside work hours. However, he believes that giving employees benefits or particular merits will make the job more rewarding if they choose to do so.

“PH labor laws, in general, express the ethicality of working schedules being eight hours max. Going over that rate should be prohibited if not compensated… but these laws are outdated as far as current affairs (COVID-19) are concerned,” Serrano said.

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Serrano isn’t wrong though, since the Book III of Labor Code of the Philippines (Art. 83) mandates that normal working hours shouldn’t exceed 8 hours. Any hours exceeded should have “an additional compensation equivalent to his regular wage plus at least twenty-five percent (25 percent) thereof” (Art. 87).

“I’m not okay with the right to disconnect if it means neglect of duty that could gravely be injurious to the organization or company. But at the same time, if employees give effort outside their original working hours, they deserve rewards, benefits, or compensation,” shared Serrano.

Meanwhile, speaking on the academic side, student leader Gabriele De Lara, has a more considerate stance. 

“Disconnection is a viable means to exempt workers or students from repercussions for taking time out of their day for themselves. Setting a boundary from your work life and personal life, is a ‘green flag’ for us working in a company or organization,” De Lara explained. Just a few weeks ago, students from multiple universities called for academic ease on various online platforms following an alarming spike of depression and anxiety among the youth, including higher suicide rates due to academic stress and pressure.

However, even with company policies in place, completely disconnecting is unrealistic for specific jobs. Careers that rely heavily on news, politics, healthcare, and frontline jobs don’t have the luxury of being lenient with time.

“While some companies already have these regulations, some only depend on respect and courtesy,” says Christian, a media practitioner in Manila. “In the media industry, on-the-go talaga tayo lalo na pag may breaking news. You can ‘disconnect’ outside of work hours, but it is hard to disregard [it all together] when your other work or socialization is now [also] done online.”

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On the other hand, Benedict O’yek, co-Founder of Murch, an e-commerce start-up, argues that it depends on the company’s culture. 

“That’s why it’s hard [to disconnect], because some corporations have strict work hours, but if you don’t do overtime, you’ll look bad,” O’yek commented. “In an ideal world, completely disconnecting is possible. It’s personally a good thing for it to happen because now that we’re working from home, there’s not a lot of separation between personal time and our jobs.”

When asked why he ultimately believes the right to disconnect is essential, he says it’s in line with his company’s culture and values. Murch emphasizes the need for employees to be psychologically healthy in order to produce good work, leading to them being happy in what they do. The start-up also implements flexible timetable policies and compensates output-based instead of the usual time-based practice, making room for more freedom in the workplace.

“Just be good to your workers and be more understanding in the pandemic. Keep things strictly from 9-5. If they go overtime, compensate. Don’t make them feel bad for not overtiming, because it’s not a requirement,” O’yek ended.

Is it time to pull the plug?

It’s imperative that employers respect their employees’ boundaries and personal time off, especially now that it’s difficult for workers to switch off considering how our inboxes and channels are always within reach. Whether it’s an issue of work culture, outdated laws, or unrealistic company policies, one thing that’s sure is that there is absolutely more to life than just working. And that’s something we tend to forget too.

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Since “right to disconnect” policies are relatively new, it’s difficult to tell whether they’re effective in the long run. However, compassionate “right to disconnect” policies, if proven to be successful, will have an immensely positive outcome and a beneficial effect on workers globally. 

Our right to disconnect is, by essence, anchored on human rightsand fundamentally, a right every one of us should enjoy.

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