Want to ignore emails outside work hours? Then forget flexibility!

Want to ignore emails outside work hours? Then forget flexibility!

The right to disconnect from work won't kill productivity

“Forget flexi hours” if you want to “disconnect”, business leaders have screamed across the media today in response to legislation passed in the Senate last week.

The threat comes in response to the right to disconnect laws, which allow workers to take their employers to the Fair Work Commission if they are penalised for failing to respond to out-of-hours contact.  

So is the right to “disconnect” really a victory for the so-called “anti-work culture” movement and a concession to the lazy workers of Australia? Is this the end of productivity as we know it?

Hardly. Rather, it’s an evolution of our times.

Just because we have the tech to be constantly on and available doesn’t mean bosses should expect to receive an immediate response to emails, texts and other forms of messaging. The now archaic Blackberry only found widespread adoption in the past 20 years, while the iPhone was first released in 2007 and arrived in major markets in 2009. Before that, most workers may have been sent emails out of hours, but they didn’t actually receive them until they logged into work, which for many would be at 9am the next morning.

But bosses seem to believe they have given enough away on flexibility to concede on putting limitations around what they can expect from workers outside of the hours they’re being paid to actually work.

Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group representing big business in Australia, has issued a warning in The Australian newspaper that businesses are preparing for the new laws and, “unfortunately for employees, many are indicating that flexibilities in workplaces such as leaving early to pick up the kids or going to the dentist will be cut back.” 

He says that “flexibility cuts both ways and if employees want to play hardball, they can expect their employer to react accordingly. All of this is both sad and unfortunate.” 

Meanwhile, Opposition leader Peter Dutton is pursuing a curious election strategy, declaring he will repeal reforms and return the right for employers to expect a response from workers when they contacted outside of work hours.

While flexibility has also come a long way in recent years, it’s provided more options for workers to balance work and care responsibilities (across some industries) but it hasn’t cut down the number of hours they’re working. 

Seven in ten workers reported working outside their scheduled hours in a 2022 survey by The Australian Institute. For those that do report doing overtime, almost half (44 per cent) said they were “often” putting in additional hours to meet employer expectations. Thirty-eight per cent of workers said that overtime was an expectation in their workplace. 

And what does all this overtime do to Australians? It results in physical tiredness, according to a third (35 per cent) of workers, as well as stress and anxiety (32 per cent) and being mentally drained (31 per cent). 

Out of work interruptions also affect relationships. They can get in the way of family time and see people cancelling plans with family and friends. Ultimately, one could argue this “always on” mindset might be contributing to poorer physical and mental health outcomes for Australians and even to the loneliness epidemic, given just how much work interruptions have crossed into time otherwise reserved for hobbies, fitness, connecting with friends, spending time with family. How does that make for a productive Australia? 

Rates of psychological distress among young people have more than doubled since 2011 according to new HILDA figures out today, with 42.3 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 reporting they were psychologically distressed. This age group also now accounts for the highest proportion of people reporting loneliness. This group also includes those most likely to be starting a new career, working in more junior positions with less autonomy over their role.

There is still much more to be considered in these new laws; understandably, employers seek to know exactly how they’ll work.

But giving workers a “right to disconnect” won’t kill Australia’s productivity. Rather, it might just improve the lives and outcomes of Australians and their families.


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