From 1 January 2017, French companies with more than 50 people were required by law to engage negotiations on the right for their employees to disconnect from digital tools in order to curb the ‘always-on’ culture. But what does the right to disconnect mean in reality and will a similar legislation be introduced in the UK?

The law

The right to disconnect was suggested to Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri in a report in September 2015, which warned about the health impact of “info-obesity”. As a result of the report, and part of the mandatory annual negotiation on professional equality and the quality of life at work, the law introduces the obligation for employers to negotiate with unions or alternatively with employee representatives on ‘modalities for the employee of the full exercise of his/her right to disconnect and the setting up by the company of devices to regulate the use of digital tools, in order to ensure the respect of periods of rest and leave as well as private and family life.’

The emphasis is on the employer to come to an agreement, but if no agreement can be reached, the onus is still on the employer to put in place a policy to support a healthy work-life balance, after consultation with employee representatives.

Régine Goury, right to disconnect
Régine Goury

The right to disconnect in practice

Burnout at work is a growing concern for the French government and the right to disconnect clearly aims at curbing such risk. The law takes the view that it is not up the employee to manage their work-life balance, but up to the employer to set appropriate limits and ensure that they are complied with.

Wisely, the law does not provide details on what the right to disconnect should contain. This leaves more flexibility, allowing each company to create its own policy taking into consideration its culture, its different businesses and major issues.

Several large companies have already set up a right to disconnect, notably in France: Renault, Airbus Helicopters, Orange, Michelin, BNP Paribas, Société Générale but also in Germany: Volkswagen and Daimler-Benz. Many organisations take this further by implementing policies which not only define a right to disconnect but also the proper use of digital tools at work, such as how not to overload colleagues with “reply to all” emails, or internal policies for remote work while traveling or teleworking.

Could it work in the UK?

Currently, the UK does not have specific laws which address the right to disconnect and it seems unlikely that an equivalent will be introduced in the UK any time soon. Employers are required to comply with the Working Time Regulations (although employees are allowed to opt-out of the 48-hour limit on average weekly working time), and they also have a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees. In addition, many organisations have dedicated wellbeing policies, all of which focus on addressing work-life balance issues.

Régine Goury is counsel at Mayer Brown