Don’t answer that phone! Can the always-on culture be beat?

Malta will pioneer a law that gives workers the right not to answer work emails and calls after hours, but always-on culture can be hard to beat in the Maltese workplace

Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba’s report on the right to disconnect comes at the tapering of the shock pandemic that changed lives in 2020 and sent everyone ‘home’. Now working from home, flexi- and telework makes the always-on culture a fact of life.

And yet, being reachable by smartphone at any second has blurred the boundaries of our work and private lives.

The widespread use of digital tools, including ICT, for work purposes has enabled workers with greater working time autonomy and flexibility in work organisation. In contrast, however, they also have created new ways of extending working hours and diluting the boundaries between working and free time. They have also been associated with types of “work nomadism”, as a result of which workers often become unable to disconnect from work, which, over time, leads to physical and mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety, depression and burnout, as well as impacting negatively on workers’ work-life balance.

MEP Alex Agius Saliba
MEP Alex Agius Saliba

Subce the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, flexible and remote working arrangements using digital tools, including ICT, have proved to be effective for business continuity in some industries and there has been a spike in the number of teleworkers and teleworkable solutions, which are expected to become increasingly common in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

On Thursday, the European Parliament voted in favour of Agius Saliba’s ‘historic’ report on the right to disconnect by 472 votes in favour, in which MEPs agreed that making employees available at all hours by smartphone or email was detrimental to mental health and well-being.

If EU member states agree, workers will be allowed to stay offline without suffering employer retribution as a result. Malta is already pioneering this legislation ahead of a mandatory EU law and the Opposition too is on board.

One of those who voted in favour of the report is Nationalist MEP and EP vice-president Roberta Metsola. “I think the question of ensuring employees can ‘disconnect’ is important and it has become all the more crucial with so many people teleworking. That said, we have to make sure that the final text is flexible enough to allow social partners and companies to adapt, for the legislation to take realities in different member states, like Malta and Gozo, into consideration.”

MEP Roberta Metsola
MEP Roberta Metsola

Referencing an amendment by Agius Saliba himself, Metsola said a three-year waiting period before any such law is introduced, will frustrate some who need immediate solutions. “However, I am sure it contributed to getting many people on board. So we will see progress on this issue, even if it takes a few more years,” she said.

A tamer version of the right to disconnect was already introduced in France back in 2017 – companies with more than 50 workers were obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff were not supposed to send or answer emails. France has a working week of 35 hours, which has been in place since 2000.

Agius Saliba says the report went one step further, granting every EU worker the right to disconnect, regardless of the company size. “We cannot abandon millions of European workers, who keep going and do their jobs under the extremely difficult circumstances of the pandemic, but who are exhausted by the pressure to be always ‘on’ and the extended working hours,” he said.

On Saturday, flanked by Maltese union bosses, Agius Saliba said that employers will have a reverse burden of proof on them when accused by employees of having discriminated against them for not working after-hours. “They will have to answer for actions that discriminate against workers who avail themselves of the right to disconnect,” he said.

Konnect CEO Josef Said (left) and BRND WGN CEO Peter Grech
Konnect CEO Josef Said (left) and BRND WGN CEO Peter Grech

But not everyone might be on board, or else have a different view of what constitutes after-hours and always-on work behaviour.

Josef Said, CEO of head-hunting firm Konnect, believes the right to disconnect is an unnecessary concept. “From what I’ve seen, no one has been fired for not answering emails outside of office hours. I, for example, don’t meet clients for dinner – only breakfast or lunch. Mind you, you’ll always have workaholics who won’t stop and we have had circumstances where we have had to tell employees to delete apps from their phones because it becomes too much,” he said, referring to those who take work home on their smartphones.

But Said says there are jobs within the international business sector, where people may need to work outside of office hours, and in that case, it’s a work requirement. “We have people in our office who are adamant about not working a 5-day week in the office – and we don’t force them – a lot of employees like the freedom working from home gives. Working hours have become flexible. I have employees who start at 9am or later because they’re working out or doing chores – not my business – and I have no problem with them clocking off later.”

Said says stringent work hours is no longer relevant in 2021, and workers should be valued by the good work they do. “I don’t think clients will penalize workers for not answering outside of work hours – if the company is good, and produces good work – the client will leave happy.”

But digital marketing CEO Peter Grech BRND WGN values the need for people to be less ‘connected’ than is necessary.

“There needs to be a balance between home, family and work time,” he says, saying the measure of success cannot be the amount of money one makes.

“I don’t think it’s good for people to be too connected. Being stressed is not cool at all... I don’t think stress leads to many positive things at all. The reality is that there are different jobs and I don’t think you can create one general statement about the way everyone should be disconnected, or could be disconnected.”

Grech think it is up to individuals to decide whether they wanted to be connected or not. “People are more connected and more obsessed with social media and the news, than they are on their work. I think you can easily choose not to have your emails come in on your phone – if you do, it’s up to you if you check them.”

But he thinks leaders and business owners need to lead by example. “If you are sending messages and emails to your staff at 2am you shouldn’t expect them to respond.”

UPE Executive Head, Graham Sansone
UPE Executive Head, Graham Sansone

Someone who has carried out academic research on workers’ right to disconnect is Union for Professional Educators boss Graham Sansone, who insists unionisation is key to workers seeking to avail this right. “It’s the only way, and it applies to any sector. It would be difficult for an employee to reinforce it on an individual basis,” he says,

“The right to disconnect must be implemented – however concessions must be added in Malta’s case. It’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. But the law must include all forms of contact on all digital services.”

Sansone says that while some jobs must include a disturbance allowance, since contacting employees outside of hours is unavoidable in certain jobs, the law must set out clear parameters, such as while being on holiday, at dinner time, when the employer must not expect the employee to respond to phone calls, messages and emails.

“To give an example of what can be implemented: I know of one business which had a system that when someone is on holiday – their emails were automatically diverted to someone else within the office who was working. That way, the person was able to take a break, without worrying that emails may go unanswered… So while flexible hours are the future, the right to disconnect doesn’t have to undermine the concept.”

R2D: Status in Malta

While the R2D has been debated by social partners in Malta, no consensus is emerging on how to address the issue. Since 2017, the R2D has been discussed sparingly by both employers and unions in Malta. For example, in October 2019, the tripartite Malta-EU Steering and Action Committee (MEUSAC) held a conference on the subject (MEUSAC, 2019). The Malta Employers Association also dedicated a TV programme on the subject on national TV and the issue has also been discussed by the General Workers Union and the Malta Union of Teachers. MEA and the Chamber of SMEs are calling for flexibility rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Likewise, the confederation Forum Unions Maltin (FORUM), argues against a one-size-fits-all and are calling for tailor made solutions within specific work contexts.

Unions like the GWU and UHM Voice of the Workers on the other hand favour legislation, whilst allowing room for manoeuvre in order to cater for the specificities of different work contexts. The Confederation of Malta Trade Unions (CMTU) considers that the R2D is not yet properly defined and is suggesting that first a common definition is needed.