Work life

Right to disconnect laws are becoming increasingly popular globally, but not in the US

Kenya is the latest country considering banning employers from contacting workers after hours.
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Francis Scialabba

3 min read

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From Indianapolis to Istanbul, workers are stressed, burned out, and always on. Smartphones have created a culture that has all but erased the idea that the workday begins and ends at certain times (or at all).

Noting the trend, since 2016 some countries have taken action to help combat always-on culture through legislation that gives workers the legal right to turn off their devices. Now, lawmakers in Kenya are telling employers to wait until morning before hitting “send” on emails.

Where in the world? Kenya became the latest country to propose “right to disconnect” legislation in late 2022. While it already has a law that states employees cannot work more than 52 hours per week, some are still contacted outside of business hours.

If passed, the Employment (Amendment) Bill not only requires employers with more than 10 employees to refrain from contacting workers during off-hours, but must also pay them if the employee chooses to respond. Furthermore, employers will have to outline for employees why they may be contacted during these times, according to reporting from The Nation.

“In the era of the virtual office, it is important to create laws to mark the shift from the physical office to protect mental health, avoid burnout, and ensure family time,” Samson Kiprotich Cherargei, a Kenyan lawmaker, told the Washington Post.

Satellite view. Countries including Belgium and Portugal and regions such as Ontario, Canada, have enacted similar legislation in recent years, but the movement appears to be lagging in the US. New York City toyed with a soft version of a right to disconnect law in 2018, but it seemed to stall in 2019.

Some private companies in the EU have policies that go beyond what their countries’ laws dictate to help their employees balance their personal and work lives. For example, Volkswagen Germany does not allow off-hours emails, according to Eurofound.

When Ontario’s law went into effect in 2022, Mike MacLellan, a partner at employment law firm CCPartners, spoke to HRD about how HR leaders can implement disconnect policies of their own.

“Realistically, employers will tailor the policies to their own individual business needs and to reflect the type of work environment they want to foster,” he said. “I expect employers who are trying to espouse the good values of work–life balance [will say] that after a certain time of the day, employees don’t need to check their emails, if that is practical.”

Those against these laws argue they’re ambiguous or impractical for employers with workforces across time zones. Others argue they restrict employees from working flexibly in an increasingly asynchronous world.

In the absence of a law, HR leaders may just have to encourage employees to switch their phones to “do not disturb.”—KP

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.