When Poland went into strict lockdown last March, Natalia Zurowska barely had time to clear her desk at work. “I went in to get my laptop and then left,” says the 36-year-old, an office manager for a graphic design firm in Warsaw at the time. “I had been working in an office for 10 years. So it was a new thing, working from home. But from day one I knew I didn’t like it.”

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Natalia Zurowska

At first, Zurowska did her job from different areas of her home to stave off her feelings of malaise. “I did one day at the desk, one day sitting on the couch and one day in the bedroom,” says Zurowska. “But as lockdown went on – one week, two weeks, three weeks – I became constantly connected. During my break, my notifications were always on. When I closed my laptop at the end of the day, I had notifications on my phone. It was disturbing.”

Zurowska is typical of millions across Europe who were suddenly thrust into remote working when the pandemic hit. EU research shows the numbers who went to full-time WFH mode rocketed from 5% in 2019 to almost 40% last spring. By July, 48% of respondents to a survey conducted by the EU agency Eurofound said they worked wholly or partly from home. In Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus and Italy more than half were working from home.

This seismic shift in office life has brought about another social change, it has blurred the work-life boundary beyond recognition. Digital technologies had already eroded the difference for many people but Covid put the always-on culture into overdrive. “ICT-based mobile working has been growing for a decade,” says Tina Weber, research manager at Eurofound. “But the pandemic has been transformational. It’s completely changed the nature of how Europe works.”

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>A video conference call from home.

WFH has clear pluses beyond comfortable clothes including greater workday flexibility, less time spent commuting and quality of life available outside cities. But the downside doesn’t just involve Zoom fatigue: many people find they are working harder and longer. A Harvard study that analysed the emails and meetings of 3.1 million people in 16 global cities, found remote staff work 48.5 minutes more per day. Eurofound’s data suggests that far from “shirking from home” those remote staff are twice as likely as office-based workers to be exceeding the EU’s 48-hour working week. Almost a third of the remote army work in their free time several times a week – compared with fewer than 5% of office workers. Further research published this month found employees working from home in the UK, Austria, Canada and the US are at their computer an extra two hours a day.

Professor Anna Cox, a computing and work-life balance expert at University College London, says that deterioration in work-life balance is mostly down to pressure and insecurity created by employers’ use of tracking software. “It’s left employees feeling like they’re being watched every minute,” she says. “They feel like there is an expectation to always be on call. It has such an impact on workers, particularly those who are not high-status managers.”

The loss of a clear work-life boundary has profound implications, particularly for women, who bear the brunt of childcare and domestic chores. Campaigners point to research showing rising levels of anxiety, depression, interrupted sleep patterns and burnout among the remote workforce, all of which they argue is partly a result of checking emails, keeping devices on and answering messages after hours. They say that employment law needs to catch up with the changed realities.

“All too often we see management by fear,” says Esther Lynch, the deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which represents 45 million workers across 38 European countries. “There needs to be a clear obligation on employers to ensure the right to disconnect for their employees.”

Although the EU’s Working Time Directive, introduced in 2003, stipulates minimum daily and weekly rest periods, and work-life balance is one of the 20 principles enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights, there is no right under EU law for those who work digitally to switch off outside working hours.

A ‘big win’ for workers

But the movement to legally protect leisure time is gaining ground. The European parliament voted overwhelmingly last month in favour of a resolution calling on the European commission to propose a law allowing those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours.

“It’s a big win for European workers,” says Alex Agius Saliba, the Maltese socialist politician who proposed the non-binding measure. “The result enables action to protect workers’ mental health, wellbeing and private life. Hopefully, it will set a precedent around the world.”

The scale of the vote in favour showed “there are real concerns”, Nicolas Schmit, the European commissioner for jobs and social rights, told the Guardian.

Proponents of reform say lessons can be learned from France. It is 20 years since France introduced a 35-hour working week limit for companies with more than 20 employees – which later extended to smaller companies. That led to a ruling in 2004 by the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court, against an ambulance company’s decision to fire a driver for not answering his personal phone outside of working hours.

Pioneers in France then tested radical approaches, such as the days without emails attempted by camera manufacturer Canon in 2010 and by food company Sodexo in 2013. These were later abandoned. Others found a happier medium with less extreme measures – banking group BNP Paribas and network provider Orange introduced rules – in 2014 and 2016 respectively – against contacting employees on weekends, evenings or during their holidays, that are still in place today.

In 2017, the then minister of labour, Myriam El Khomri, concerned about information overload (or info-obesity as she called it) introduced a law that required companies with more than 50 employees to draw up a charter thatclearly set out times when staff should not send or answer emails – in other words the world’s first “right to disconnect” law.

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Myriam El Khomri, pictured in the French national assembly in 2016

Groupe JLO is a French company that supports disabled workers into employment. In 2015 it shut down its internet server and mobile connections between 7pm and 7am. “It was quite effective,” says Jérôme Bouchet, director of innovation and services. “But it was also very constraining.”

The company loosened its approach in 2019, and staff now receive reminders in emails emphasising that they do not need to be answered out of hours. “The lighter system works well now. It gives us flexibility,” says Bouchet. “But I think that’s only because we sent the message first with the stricter policy and changed the workplace culture – that was very important.”

Critics say France’s legislation only obliges companies to negotiate with staff representatives each year and in the event of disagreement to sign a charter – and often such agreements are non-binding. “The law has been a good thing,” says Caroline Sauvajol-Rialland, professor at Sciences Po Paris and author of the book Infobesity. “France became the first country in Europe to establish the right to disconnect rules. But the law is too light and many companies are ambivalent towards it.”

A recent survey of 34,000 workers by a coalition of French unions found 78% worked for companies that had not properly implemented the right to disconnect, 24% noted an increase in their workload during the pandemic and 30% were suffering from information overload. “There’s this great challenge of lundimanche that we must tackle,” Sauvajol-Rialland says, referring to a French portmanteau word for the blurring of Sunday into Monday.

France’s ministry of labour confirmed concerns when it published guidance in March reiterating that “the distinction between work time and leisure time must be clear and guarantee the employees’ right to disconnect”.

Zurowska, moved from Poland to France in July to start a job in the sales department of a paint company in Marseille and with work split between home and the office, has fewer complaints now. I find that France is very good for work-life balance,” she says. “Here, the lunch break is sacred. There would have to be a war or earthquake to stop it. And I’ve found nobody texts me or sends me emails outside of working hours.”

Other European countries including Spain and Italy have followed France’s example. Ireland and Luxembourg are in the process of legislating to protect remote workers. In Germany, which has no legislation but is considered to have forward-thinking policies at company level, large businesses such as Volkswagen have limited email server connections on evenings and weekends.

Pandemic level playing field

The pandemic may have exacerbated the always-on pressure but it is also seen by campaigners as an opportunity to create a level playing field across the EU. “France’s example has been very beneficial and a very good case study,” says Maltese MEP Saliba. “But we need to implement minimum requirements across Europe – and if member states want, they can go further.”

It won’t be plain sailing. Business groups lobbied hard and won an amendment to the European parliament resolution that gives companies up to three years to implement voluntary agreements with social partners before any EU directive goes ahead. That is a long time to wait, Schmit says, when there is a need for “a rapid response”.

Some employers think regulation is a step too far. “We don’t think there’s a legal need for it,” says Markus J Beyrer, the director general of BusinessEurope. “The EU already has legislation in place protecting working time and health and safety in the workplace.”

Beyrer is unconvinced about the reported negative impact of remote working. He said: “Do people really work more? I hear from many people that they have much more time for themselves and a better work-life balance.”

Labour experts also warn that while any EU legislation must be enforced it must also be flexible enough to take account of the needs of freelancers and workers who have parenting responsibilities and have no desire to return to the traditional nine to five.

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Grig Richters

“We have to be careful over what we mandate,” says ETUC’s Lynch. “Perhaps parents would want to pick up their children from school, have family time and then work later in the evening – so we can’t set out fixed hours. The same goes for freelancers, who have one of the most insecure forms of work. The burden must be on employers to send the message that they won’t be discriminated against for taking rest.”

For Grig Richters, a 33-year-old working in communications in Germany, such protection couldn’t come sooner. In the midst of the pandemic last year, he went freelance and was thrown into a state of panic to secure enough work to pay his bills.

“Sometimes my emails just explode at midnight,” says Richters. “Some of my clients throw things at you last-minute. Some, particularly smaller teams that know me well, might even contact me about work on Facebook or Instagram. But if you switch off people might think you’re lazy. It’s been really tough. Right now it feels like remote working is very unregulated.”

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