There was once a time when knocking off from work meant heading home for rest, relaxation and time spent with family and loved ones.
The widespread integration of digital communication technologies has changed that for many workers, who find themselves fielding calls, emails and text messages outside paid work hours
So it’s not surprising to learn that 79% of full-time workers in Australia have worked outside of scheduled hours – and, according to the Australia Institute – this adds up to 280 hours of free work every year.
Thanks to new right to disconnect laws to come into effect later this year, all workers will have the right to say no to unreasonable demands to stay digitally connected to their employer outside regular work hours.
The changes come as one piece of the Albanese Government’s Closing Loopholes Bill – the second part of which passed just yesterday – delivering stronger rights and protections for working Australians. These new rights were fought for and won by union members.
Protecting work-life balance in changing times
It was during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many workers experienced sustained periods of working from home, that awareness grew about the blurring of boundaries between work and personal life due to digital technology – and the negative implication this has on our mental health and sense of well-being.
A right to disconnect is all about preserving a healthy separation between home and work life, and prioritising the mental health of workers. The change better reflects the evolving nature of work in modern digital workplaces.
For the first time, all Australian workers will have the right to refuse unreasonable, unpaid work such as the expectation they will monitor and respond to emails out of hours in which they are being paid. The right to disconnect is fair and essential to maintaining a balance between work and personal time.
So what will be changing?
In effect, the new laws will empower employees to ignore unreasonable communication from their employer outside of work hours if they choose to – and not face penalties for it.
When the new laws come into effect in roughly six months (18 months for small business), employees will have the right to refuse to monitor, read or respond to employer or work-related contact – unless that refusal is unreasonable.
The right will become a mandatory term in awards, and employees will be able to apply to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) if there is a dispute about refusing contact outside work hours, including if there is a risk of disciplinary action.
The FWC also has the power to issue a ‘stop order’ if there is a risk the employer won’t respect the employee’s right to reasonably refuse contact outside of working hours. A court may impose fines on an employer who breaches a stop order.
There may be legal pathways available for workers whose employment is terminated for refusing contact outside of working hours (where doing so is not unreasonable).
Shifting mindsets in the digital age
Unionists will always fight for the right of workers to lead a fulfilling life outside of work, and that includes ample time for rest, leisure, and spending time with loved ones.
The right to disconnect is a step in the right direction that takes into account the reality of many modern workplaces, and responds to the needs of workers to prioritise mental health and work-life balance.
If you’re someone who cares about fighting for working rights and the dignity of work for all, today’s the day to join your union and help create change.