Employer update: Your employees already enjoy a ‘right to disconnect’

Alan Hickey

August 20 2019

As a small business owner, you make yourself available 24/7. You have to, your business depends on it.

The same rules don’t apply to your employees. Working time laws prevent you from having employees at your beck and call all day.  

The modern-day employee also routinely accesses their email from a mobile device after leaving work. So is it time for a law allowing employees to disconnect?

This is a question the Irish government is considering.

Work-life balance in the digital age

Minister Heather Humphreys recently confirmed that the Interdepartmental Steering Group is examining the right to disconnect as part of an overall review of work-life balance. The group will also look into issues such as flexible working hours, job-sharing and remote working. 

Existing employee protections

The recent focus on the right to disconnect is a response to a growing concern than employees are not receiving sufficient uninterrupted rest periods from work.

For instance, an employee might work their standard shift during the day and then send some work-related emails later that evening from their work mobile or laptop.

The difficulty here is that employees already benefit from protections under working time legislation, meaning the need to enact a new law is questionable.

Employees enjoy strong protections under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997 (OWTA).

Under section 15 of the OWTA, employers cannot ‘permit’ employees to work more than an average of 48 hours over 7 days.

In addition, employees are entitled to 11 consecutive hours’ daily rest between shifts.

Right to disconnect already enforced by an employee

There’s even been a recent case of an employee asserting her right to disconnect under the OWTA.

The employee “produced copies of emails to and from the Company that were sent on a regular basis after 5 pm and up to midnight. She also produced copies of emails sent after midnight and before normal starting time.”   

As the employee could produce out-of-hours email records, she successfully argued that although her employer was aware that her working patterns breached the limits under OWTA, they did little to change it.

The Labour Court ruled that the employer ‘permitted’ her to work above the maximum number of hours allowed under OWTA.

This resulted in the employee being awarded €7,500 in compensation. The decision demonstrates that the OWTA already protects the right to disconnect and suggests that new legislation in this area is unnecessary.

Working time risks in the digital age

Do you give employees a smartphone or laptop? If so, you could face a greater risk of breaching working time laws.

Giving an employee a phone creates an “always on” culture that can lead to stress and burnout. If it goes too far, you could find yourself facing a claim.

If your staff use mobile devices, it’s important that your employment policies set out some guidelines around the expected use of mobile devices.

This will reduce your exposure to working time claims from overly industrious employees.    

Need to find out more about employer obligations in relation to working time? Call our 24-hour advice line on 1890 252 923

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