In March 2023, the Fair Work Amendment (Right to Disconnect) Bill 2023 was introduced to Parliament, which prohibits an employer contacting an employee outside of their working hours, unless there is a genuine urgency for it. The legislation would also mean that employees are not required to read or respond to work communications like emails outside of work hours. This is as a result of growing calls for Australia to introduce a ‘right to disconnect’ law. But what would such legislation look like in Australia?
The ‘right to disconnect’ bill
Australia’s proposed plan to introduce ‘right to disconnect’ laws stems from similar concepts in European countries. For example, France introduced the right to disconnect from technology after work hours legislation in 2017, giving employees the right not to be contacted outside of working hours.
In Australia, the Victoria Police Force has a right to disconnect in place for their officers as part of their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement from 2021, providing them an allowance for every hour they are off duty but can be contactable.
Health and safety and disconnecting from work
One area where the right to disconnect could be further championed in Australia is from the perspective of health and safety. Rather than a ‘right’ to disconnect, when it comes to health and safety it is more accurate to refer to it as the management of risks of psychosocial health.
One of the most common hazards in this space is high job demand, which might manifest as people feeling the inability to manage their work within a particular set period of time and may feel the need to be responsive outside of normal hours or for longer hours.
While Australia already has regulations in place to manage risks to psychosocial health, the proposed right to disconnect laws could potentially provide some clarity for employers in terms of worker safety.
Employers should also consider the increasing availability and desire for flexibility that many employees now have – where and when they work – versus a benefit in having a right to disconnect for their psychological health. Managing this is potentially something that employers will need to learn to navigate.
How HR can prepare for right to disconnect legislation
If the proposed legislation comes to pass, it would mean employers would have to pay closer attention to the hours worked and the pay entitlements of employees. This would include things like paying employees for hours worked, tracking those hours of work, and implementing appropriate overtime policies or time in lieu policies. Meaning that if an employee is working outside of their ordinary working hours, they are being renumerated for it. Additionally, ensuring there are processes and systems in place to check that employees are being renumerated and rewarded for their efforts appropriately is essential.
In the meantime, employers should look to engage with employees to better understand their workloads from a management point of view. Providing managers with the tools, resources, and skills to manage the workloads of the team is important. Managers should also be equipped to have conversations with employees who may be experiencing a higher workload, and help recalibrate the person’s priorities or assist them in rebalancing or redistributing work.
Foster a positive culture
Developing a respectful workplace culture where people feel confident and comfortable to speak up is key. If an employee is struggling and feeling that there is not enough opportunity to have the level of recuperation needed between shifts or the expectations are too much, there needs to be a place to go where those issues can get escalated; whether that is HR, the direct manager, or an alternative wellbeing contact.
Identify potential issues
Employers should look for any ‘hotspots’ or potential issues that can identify problematic workplace behaviour. For example, if there are groups that have not had any annual leave for a very long time, where there is no utilisation of leave, it could be a sign that employees are working excessively and there is a feeling of not being able to take annual leave, which could lead to burn out. Conversely, high levels of personal leave that are disproportionate to the rest of the business could be indicative of employees experiencing burn out, or simply not attending to work due to an overwhelming workload. Looking for these types of signs could help to reveal any underlying issues.
Employers should have clear policies and directions around their work requirements. If the ‘right to disconnect‘ bill passes, it should not be a shock to the business and managers in particular, need to be fully aware of what is and is not expected of employees.
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