Should Workers Have the Right to Unplug?

Matthew Tarpey


Ever since we started carrying mini computers around with us at all times, many workers have enjoyed the freedom of working from home more frequently or even just getting away from their desks without worrying about missing an important call or email.

But for many, this constant connection to work has gone from an option to an expectation. According to CareerBuilder research, 49 percent of workers say they check or respond to work emails after leaving the office for the night, and 45 percent say they complete work outside of office hours.

And it’s not just during the typical workweek, either. A separate study from CareerBuilder found that, while on vacation, 31 percent of workers read work emails, and 18 percent check in with the office.

The study also found that nearly a third of workers say work causes them high or extremely high levels of stress. The ever-connected, “always on” culture is often a contributing factor to increased stress, and can also lead to workers feeling fatigued, less satisfied with their jobs, and even burned out.

So, what can be done to combat this trend? One answer may be legislation.

There Oughta be a Law

According to The Washington Post, New York City Councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr. has proposed a new bill that would give workers the legal right to not respond to work email or text messages on their days off or after normal work hours.

The bill would be similar to a law that went into effect in France last year, which stipulates that companies have to negotiate policies with their employees limiting how much work can spill over into employees’ personal time.

Unlike the French law, which has no penalties for violation, the proposed New York City bill, as currently written, would impose a fine on companies found to be in violation.

Limits of Regulation

But some questions remain about how – and if­ – such a bill would work. As it currently stands, the bill would simply protect employees who choose not to respond to off-hours communications from retaliation. Some employment law experts have pointed out that determining the line between whether an employee freely chooses to respond to after-hours communications or feels pressure to respond may prove difficult.

The bill would also require employers to adopt written policies that clearly define “usual work hours” for different classes of employees, and allows employers to make exceptions for workers who are required to be on 24-hour call (doctors, firefighters or airline pilots, for example). This raises concerns that employers may work around the law by setting longer “usual hours,” or by enacting a policy defining all salaried employees as on-call.

There’s no question that there are some potential problems and loopholes in the proposed bill, but it is still just a proposal, and will likely go through several revisions. Whether the bill actually moves forward remains to be seen, but at the very least, it has opened a much-needed discussion about one of today’s most troubling workplace trends.


Want to help workers keep a healthy work-life balance? Check out 3 Ways to Help Employees Manage Their Time Better.


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