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Right to disconnect

The right to disconnect has never been more prevalent in the workplace. Since the Covid pandemic more employees have been working from home and this will only increase with a McCrindle study indicating that 3 in 5 Australian workers (or 62%) say their ideal working environment is a hybrid one, whereby they are working both in the workplace and at home.

With the increase in technology, employees have continual access to devices and can access their work emails and systems within seconds.

The disconnect precedent takes on a new meaning in the remote working environment and a modern trend of “availability creep”. This is the pressure, whether real or perceived, to be constantly on call to answer any message or alert from the office.

A 2020 survey from the Australian Institute recorded that employees were clocking an extra 5.3 hours of overtime each week which is up from 4.6 hours in the previous year.

Existing laws do not currently encapsulate employees’ rights to disconnect other than providing for maximum hours of work.

In April this year the Fair Work Commission approved an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement for nearly 17,000 in the Victorian Police Force, granting them “the right to disconnect”. The Agreement says that supervisors and managers must respect officers’ period of leave and rest days and that other than in emergencies or genuine welfare matters, Police between the rank of Constable and Senior Sergeant must not be contacted outside working hours unless the employee is in receipt of an “availability allowance”.

The allowance is payable for each hour an officer is available, other than when they are rostered for work or expressly directed to be available. It is likely the issue of the ability for employees to disconnect will grow in momentum and there will be calls for legislative changes either within Awards or the National Employment Standards to better secure the right for employees to disconnect.

Other countries, including France, Canada and Ireland, have already taken steps to ensure their employees’ rights are not outpaced by the rapid spread of technological intrusion.

In Australia the ACTU last year released a working from home charter that includes a right to disconnect.

In the meantime, until changes are made, the implementation of a policy at the initiative of an employer is another means of creating a framework for employees to be able to disconnect from the workplace. Employers should not be surprised if it becomes a discussion point in future Enterprise bargaining negotiations.