What is the Right-to-Disconnect?
On 1 Jan 2017, the El Khomri law came into effect in France. The law gave employees the right to disconnect from work. In other words, they had the right not to respond to work communications such as texts and emails outside working hours. This was the world’s first Right-to-Disconnect (RtD) legislation, aimed at reducing burnout and protecting employees’ work-life balance.
Similar laws have since gained international traction, having been enacted in Italy, Spain, the Philippines, Slovakia and Ireland. The prospect of RtD legislation has been surfaced in Singapore too – by MP Melvin Yong. So, does Singapore need such legislation, and will it work?
How common is workplace burnout in Singapore?
Work-related burnout is particularly common in Asian countries, primarily because of a prevalent workaholic or “always on” culture. Employees feel obliged to work long and hard, even if it is to an unreasonable extent. A 2019 survey found that 92% of Singaporeans were stressed from work, with 13% of this group saying their stress was unmanageable. A separate study in 2019 found that Singapore was the second-most overworked city from their sample of 40, second only to Tokyo.
This was the state of affairs before the pandemic. Since then, the shift from office-based work to working from home (WFH) has enabled employers to push their employees to their limits, more than was previously possible.
Since employees are cooped up at home, some employers expect them to be available around the clock, sometimes even when on leave. With the adoption of video call technologies like Zoom, meetings can be set up in an instant, and workers can be called to work at any time – even conventionally off-work hours like late at night. Moreover, work often spills into the weekends as there is little else to occupy employees. All these mean that employees are working more than before. Due to our working culture, employees are likely to accept the extra workload; they might even put in longer hours to protect their job amidst increased retrenchments.
WFH also indirectly reduces the rest time workers have. Working in an office comes with implicit rest times, such as time spent travelling to meetings or going out to purchase food. However, at home, opportunities like these are reduced. Additionally, staying at home isolates workers from their friends and coworkers, removing an important support structure that could help them cope with stress.
Singapore’s prevalent workaholic culture, remote work, increased working hours and the reduction of coping mechanisms have blurred the lines between work and home and created a perfect storm for overwork and workplace burnout. Unsurprisingly, this has taken a heavy toll on employees.
They may skip meals, take less breaks, sleep less and experience more stress while coping with a heavier workload. This can cause physical and mental problems, such as headaches, gastric pains, anxiety and loneliness amongst many other things. According to a March 2021 survey, 48% of Singaporeans are unhappy with their job, while 69% want a better work-life balance. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index also reported that 58% of workers in Singapore felt overworked, while 49% were exhausted. MP Melvin Yong revealed that the Labour Movement’s own ground sensing shows roughly two-thirds of employees having difficulties separating work and non-work hours during WFH.
Worryingly, employees are not the only ones suffering from this. Studies show that when employees have poor mental health, they are less productive, and more prone to accidents and injuries. This both raises costs and decreases output for companies. And, as poor work-life balance is a key reason for quitting, employers also have to contend with more resignations and by extension higher turnover costs.
Workplace burnout is a huge and growing issue that hurts employees and employers alike, and addressing it has never been more critical.
Is RtD legislation feasible?
This is where RtD legislation can play a part. By drawing clear boundaries between work and personal time, it creates protected time for employees to rest, thereby reducing overwork, fatigue and burnout, and the array of detriments that come with it.
MP Melvin Yong, the key proponent of RtD legislation in Parliament, suggested that emails sent outside of office hours be accompanied with a disclaimer stating that no immediate response is expected. He also suggested using technology to ensure non-critical emails are only sent out the next working day at 8 am. But RtD legislation varies far beyond this. Some restrict work communications after office hours, while others carve out dedicated breaks in employees’ schedules. Intuitively, these measures should work. However, many have criticised RtD legislation on various grounds.
One criticism of RtD legislation is that it is inherently incompatible with flexible schedules. While WFH may have resulted in more work, it has also accorded employees greater flexibility to work different hours each day, based on how they want to juggle work and other responsibilities. This, in turn, means that some have not worked a regular pattern of hours since the pandemic began.
In fact, flexibility is a job requirement for some. When MP Melvin Yong raised the prospect of RtD legislation in Parliament, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad replied that this would not be possible for employees who need to work across time zones, such as those in MNCs. He also added that some workers want flexibility instead of adhering to fixed schedules. MP Yong himself acknowledged that RtD legislation would be too rigid for essential service workers.
Given that RtD legislation inherently demarcates work and non-work hours to draw boundaries between them, it may simply be inapplicable to many who rely on flexible and by extension ever-changing hours, whether due to the pandemic or to the nature of their job.
A second criticism is that RtD legislation does not address the root cause of burnout. RtD legislation would give employees the option to work less, but it also does not stop them from working more. As some employers demand visibility and favour those who work longer hours, employees are unlikely to exercise their right not to work. If the underlying work culture rewards long hours and presenteeism, employees would voluntarily work longer hours even if they had the option not to, making RtD legislation a moot point.
A third criticism of RtD is that it is potentially counterproductive. If employers are banned from connecting with their employees at certain times such as weekends, they now have an incentive to ensure that you are fully available and occupied during legally-approved hours. This may, counterintuitively, result in more work for employees.
Additionally, some argue that when employees work less, they get less work done, though there is some evidence to dispute this claim. Research that shows that well-rested employees are more productive, more careful and are better able to contribute creatively at the workplace. Moreover, working beyond 55 hours a week causes a decline in productivity and an increase in workplace accidents. For overworked employees, getting them to work less actually helps them get more done.
Moreover, RtD legislation is not necessarily inflexible as it need not be implemented with respect to time. Instead of having dedicated breaks, employers could instead set up dedicated communication channels – such as having corporate mobile phones for employees. This makes it easier for employees to disengage from work when they need to. Interventions like these are applicable to workers regardless of their working hours.
These theoretical arguments, while comprehensive, still provide little guidance on the real-world impacts of RtD legislation. Senior Minister of State Zaqy Mohamad highlighted that many countries, Singapore included, are still waiting and seeing if such laws are feasible in practice. Only time will tell if they really work.
Low Hanging Fruit
This does not mean that nothing can be done about the issue of workplace burnout. There are many small interventions – or as MP Yong put it, ‘baby steps’ – that could easily be implemented. This includes both of his suggestions of reminding email recipients that immediate replies are not expected and having emails only be sent out the next working day.
Other potential baby steps include using separate platforms for work-related and casual messages; providing corporate mobile phones; mandating no-meeting days; or even voluntary leave schemes, where employees are paid a partial salary while on leave to pursue professional interests.
As each company operates under different conditions and constraints, not all of these, or even none of these interventions may be practicable. Perhaps, the most useful step any employee can take is to raise their concerns and start negotiating with employers.