'Right to disconnect': boss may no longer call employees after hours

'Right to disconnect': boss may no longer call employees after hours
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From 1 February, federal civil servants will no longer have to answer phone calls from their boss after normal working hours, a circular from Minister of Civil Service Petra De Sutter states.

De Sutter emphasised the so-called "right to disconnect" – the right to be unreachable – of federal civil servants in her circular, according to reports in De Morgen, which saw the letter.

A federal civil servant may not be contacted outside normal working hours, unless "in the event of exceptional and unforeseen circumstances requiring action that cannot wait until the next working period." Additionally, a federal civil servant "should not be disadvantaged by not answering the phone or reading work-related messages outside normal working hours."

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The right to disconnect will now even be enshrined in law as a means to combat "excessive work stress and burn-out" among federal civil servants, De Sutter explained in the circular.

She added that disconnecting from work "is linked to positive well-being outcomes such as better focus, better recuperation and a more sustainable energy level." The decision is particularly pertinent in times of teleworking when many find it difficult to stop work from encroaching on domestic life and free time.

"The computer stays on, you keep reading the e-mails you receive on your smartphone... To better protect people against this, we now give them the legal right to disconnect," she said.

'Exceptional and unforeseen circumstances'

The circular states that a manager may still call an employee after normal working hours in "exceptional and unforeseen circumstances," although these have not been made explicitly clear.

Clear agreements can now be made with trade unions and managers to make this principle a reality. De Sutter emphasised that "the spirit of the measure must be central: the employee's family, rest and holidays have to be respected."

A similar arrangement is in the pipeline for the private sector, Laurens Teerlinck, spokesperson for Federal Labour Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne, told The Brussels Times.

"After advice from the social partners, a proposal should be discussed, alongside the four-day work week and regulations for evening work," he said. "There will be more info on this over the course of this month."

Change in culture needed

For professor of occupational medicine Lode Godderis, De Sutter's measure is "a good first step," but a real "culture change" is needed, and not only in Government.

Everything depends on how the change will be implemented, he told VRT. "It's not as if we are unreachable today, because we have digital tools. This is easy to get around if you know someone's private number and address."

"We have to give each other the necessary rest when we are not at work. It is important to make agreements within a team about availability and accessibility," Godderis said.

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