Why ‘Right to Disconnect’ laws won’t be enough

By guest contributor: Dr Kristy Goodwin, Neuro-Performance Scientist

Research confirms what many are experiencing first-hand- stress and burnout. Rates of stress and burnout are increasing in Australia and globally amongst employees and leaders (see the latest State of Workplace Burnout 2024 Report). Tackling this issue will be paramount in 2024 if organisations want to genuinely protect employees’ wellbeing and drive performance. In fact, in a recent Q and A whilst touring Australia,  Adam Grant proposed that one of  the greatest challenges facing Australian businesses is burnout.

No doubt you’ve heard that the ‘Right to Disconnect’ legislation passed parliament earlier in February and is currently awaiting royal assent. This legislation gives employees the right to ignore late night calls, messages and emails from their boss (in certain circumstances) and changes the way many employers and employees will communicate after-hours.

Many proponents of this legislation suggest that these legislative changes are a positive step forwards in terms of promoting greater work-life harmony and tackling the stress, exhaustion and burnout that’s rife in many workplaces in Australia. In a digital landscape where employees are now constantly available after hours thanks to smartphones and mobile devices becoming ubiquitous, ‘availability creep’ has become commonplace in many workplaces. In research called Short Changed: Unsatisfactory working hours and unpaid overtime.  2023 update it was revealed that Australian full-time employees reported an average of 6.2 hours per week performing unpaid work, after-hours.

Research tells us that consistently working after-hours is detrimental to both our wellbeing and productivity. Research from Slack’s Workforce Index 2023 found that 37% of knowledge workers were working outside their standard hours, at least weekly and that 54% were doing so because they felt pressured to do so, not because they were choosing to do so. Those employees who felt obligated to work reported 20% lower productivity scores compared to their counterparts who logged off at the end of their workday, 2.1 times worse work-related stress, 1.7 times lower satisfaction with their overall working environment, 2 times greater burnout. These are sobering statistics when it comes to the detrimental effects of after-hours work.

So in the rapidly evolving landscape of modern work, the introduction of the ‘Right to Disconnect’ bill in Australia would appear to be a solid remedy to the ‘availability creep’ that’s taking place in many organisations.  It marks a crucial turning point in our collective journey towards more balanced and sustainable work cultures. As many organisations embrace the possibilities of remote and/or hybrid work arrangements, it’s essential to safeguard the wellbeing of employees and uphold their right to a healthy work-life balance. This is a fundamental principle of the ‘Right to Disconnect’ bill. By fostering a culture of respect for boundaries and promoting mindful communication practices, managers can create an environment conducive to sustained performance and innovation.

However, the laws have been met with opposition from some in the business community and the Coalition has already suggested that it would seek to overturn the laws if elected. Businesses will need to consider how the introduction of this new right impacts their current operations, especially in terms of more flexible work arrangements.

I believe that the legislation alone won’t be enough to result in substantial changes in the workplace in terms of remedying after-hours work and communication. The success of right-to-disconnect legislation hinges not only on its implementation but also on complementary measures to support its effectiveness.

In order to make a real difference we need to accompany these legislative changes with other measure, including:

  • We need targeted education and training programs that highlight the impact of after-hours communication on not only our wellbeing but also our productivity. Yes, there’s mounting studies and research that confirm what most of us intuitively know- it’s not good for us. We also need to explicitly teach people about optimal ways to drive productivity with these more flexible work arrangements  and manage the barrage of digital distractions that now permeate many knowledge workers’ days.

  • We need to utilise the digital tools (including AI) that can effectively restrict or at least hamper our ability to connect after-hours. For example, can your workplace quarantine emails or chats after-hours?

  • We need to question why people are working after hours – is it simply to deal with the increased ‘digital debt‘ that many knowledge workers are reporting? Are people attending too many meetings each day (hint- use Microsoft Viva Insights data to easily track this). Are people wanting or demanding greater schedule flexibility, so they’re electing to work after-hours? Do you have team members working with colleagues in different time zones and need to work asynchronously?

  • We need to ensure there’s congruence between people’s workloads and working hours. Are people working after-hours due to increasing and/or unrealistic demands of their role requirements? Has ‘scope creep’ taken place?

  • Communicating an organisations’ digital guardrails (see below).

The most important thing that companies need to do, in conjunction with addressing these legislative changes, is to design their own ‘Digital Guardrails’. We need organisations to articulate what are their digital norms, practices and principles that underpin our new ways of working, at either an organisational and/or team level. These digital guardrails, sometimes referred to as ‘team agreements’ will certainly need to explicate legislative requirements such as how to manage after-hours communication (can you write your emails/chats and use the schedule tool, or can you send them after-hours without the ‘tech-spectation’ that your colleague needs to respond after-hours?).

In addition to these legislative requirements that basically refer to employees’ rights to refuse unreasonable after-hours contact from their employer, digital guardrails should provide more company-specific details on the practical implementation of after-hours communications. A company’s digital guardrails should also describe an escalation plan whereby they list the specific digital tool/s that will be used to disseminate any urgent after-hours information. These guardrails should also define how, when and where to use different communication tools, both during and after regular business hours (when do I send an email vs a Teams chat) to help employees deal with the constant deluge of digital distractions  that now permeate their days (so workplaces can tackle the state of ‘digital debt’).  Digital guardrails should also encompass protocols and best practice underpinning virtual and hybrid meetings and consider implementing meeting-free times of the week, as research shows this can have substantial improvements on productivity and stress.

I’m pleased to have been working with a number of organisations since 2022 to help them to co-create their Digital Guardrails. Pleasingly, the data from companies who’ve implemented these guardrails have shown substantial improvements in wellbeing and productivity. With one company I worked with in in 2023 to create their digital guardrails employees reported a 68% increase in wellbeing which they attributed to having more clarity on how to optimise their time, 62% felt more confident to switch off from work at the end of the day and 74% had more clarity on the most effective ways to communicate with the team.

Dr Kristy Goodwin, Neuro-Performance Scientist

Having personally experienced how our always-on digital culture is compromising people’s wellbeing and is counter to optimal and sustainable performance, award-winning researcher and speaker Dr Kristy Goodwin is on a mission to promote employee wellbeing and bolster workplace productivity in an always-on digital world. Dr Kristy, author of Dear Digital, We need to talk shares realistic, research-based micro habits that people can apply to tame their digital habits and thrive in the digital world. As one of Australia’s digital wellbeing and productivity experts, she shares practical brain-based hacks to tame tech habits and the latest evidence-based strategies to decode the neurobiology of peak performance in the technological era. Senior business leaders and HR executives from the country’s top organisations engage Dr Kristy to help them promote employee digital wellbeing and performance.

LinkedIn: Dr Kristy Goodwin

Website: https://drkristygoodwin.com/