Federal bosses are no longer allowed to call civil servants after working hours thanks to a new “right to disconnect” law which came into force in Belgium on February 1, 2022. The new ruling gives Belgium civil servants the right to ignore emails and phone calls they receive outside of their contracted hours, freeing around 65,000 federal employees from their work obligations once their shift is done.
According to the Brussels Times, federal Deputy Prime Minister for Belgium Petra De Sutter said the move comes as a means to combat “excessive work stress and burn-out” among the federal workforces.
“The computer stays on, you keep reading the emails you receive on your smartphone,” said De Sutter. “To better protect people against this, we now give them the legal right to disconnect.”
What is the “right to disconnect”?
The right to disconnect is not unique to Belgium, having been implemented in France in 2017 following several French Supreme Court Cases, one of which – from 2004 – ruled “the fact that [the employee] was not reachable on his cell phone outside working hours cannot be considered as misconduct.”
Since then, it’s garnered popularity across the globe where unpaid overtime, excessive workloads, stress, and burnout are prominent. While many workplaces where the right to disconnect law is not in place may already free their employees at the end of the working day, the law is intended to provide support to workers where this is not the case.
What does having the right to disconnect mean?
During the pandemic, when WFH saw a massive uptick across the globe, the merging of office and home meant the line between work and leisure became thinner than ever before. By implementing the right to disconnect, Belgium hopes to afford civil servants two key rights:
- The right to not have to routinely work out of hours.
- The right to not be punished for refusing to work out of hours.
It also enforces that the employees themselves can’t pressure their colleagues to work out of hours, by refraining from emailing or calling them once the working day is done.
All very positive for the overworked civil servant, then, but the new law does come with some caveats. Under the new law, a manager may still contact employees outside of work hours under “exceptional and unforeseen circumstances,” but since these haven’t been specified some have expressed fears this could lead to a bending of the rules.
The world looks to Belgium now to see how the new law plays out in the civil sector and whether or not it inspires the private sector to follow suit.
Hazy definitions aside De Sutter remains clear in the right to disconnect’s goals: “The spirit of the measure must be central: the employee’s family, rest and holidays have to be respected.”