Disconnect… to avoid becoming Disconnected

by Ben J. Searle, Organisational Psychologist

The big IR, HR, and WHS news in Australia this week is the new legislation around the right to disconnect.

The legislation (to give it it’s proper name, “The Fair Work Amendment (Right to Disconnect) Bill”) will provide employees the right — where reasonable — to ignore work-related communications outside of working hours. It doesn’t matter if the communications come from the boss, co-workers, or customers, because the aim is to recognise that in most jobs, people are paid to work during working hours only.

Like much legislation, a lot could hang on the interpretation of whether it is reasonable for a given employee to do so (given the nature of their responsibilities, contract conditions, personal circumstances etc). Obviously, it would be reasonable for a surgeon who is on-call to answer a call from the hospital. But the intention is for such cases to be recognised as exceptions rather than the rule.

The legislation has attracted a variety of criticisms. For example, some say it’s misguided because the focus is on an employee’s right to ignore messages, regardless of the reasons why the employee is being contacted. But my impression is that the legislation may be just the sort of approach we need to begin managing our current epidemic of burnout.

According to International Classification of Diseases (used by the World Health Organisation), burnout is a condition caused by chronic stress, and its symptoms include exhaustion, reduced professional efficacy, and cynicism or mental distancing from one’s job. I’ve studied burnout for many years (I aim to publish a book about it later this year, but that’s another story), but it’s fairly common knowledge that burnout is a huge problem in our society. More and more high-profile people have publicly acknowledged their need to step down or scale back due to burnout. Some industries have been particularly susceptible in recent years, but the problem is widespread.

And a big risk factor for burnout is feeling like you’re always on duty, always needing to check in and keep up. Rarely taking a genuine break where you fully disconnect from work.

“Why not take a vacation, if you’re in need for a such a break?” Vacations are great, but since Westman & Eden’s 1997 study we’ve known that vacations don’t fix burnout. Instead, you need solid recovery time as often as possible, preferably every day, to interrupt the chronic stress of work. Ignoring work emails and Slack messages in your downtime is essential because, as the work of Sabine Sonnentag and colleagues has shown repeatedly, you shouldn’t even be thinking about work once your workday ends.

This is the problem with some of the criticisms of the legislation. If employees were free to ignore some messages, but not others, we’d need to check messages regularly to determine if any of them require a response. That’s the opposite of disconnecting.

Paradoxically, when people do burn out, the result can be a different kind of disconnection. The symptom of ‘mental distancing or cynicism’ means people find it harder and harder to ‘connect’ with and care about the needs of co-workers, customers, or anyone else. This can be debilitating for the people who burn out, but you might also imagine that it does nothing good for the productivity of their workplace. It is a far more problematic form of disconnection than going all weekend without checking email.

We’re hardly the only place in the world trying to address this problem. The right to disconnect has been part of the French labour code since 2017, and several other countries have similar laws. In Germany, many companies embargo emails sent after work hours, so that the emails don’t arrive until early the next workday.

I’m hoping the proposed legislation will help here. A bit of external pressure to nudge us towards more regular disconnection from work is a step in the right direction. A step away from burnout, and away from the chronic sense of disconnection that it can bring.

That’s what I think, but what do you think?

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