Conference: Work-Life Balance – The Right to Disconnect

28 October 2019

On Monday, 28 October, 2019 MEUSAC hosted The Right to Disconnect conference and roundtable workshops at Seashells Resort at Suncrest in Qawra.

In her opening address, Ms Mandy Falzon, Head of MEUSAC, said it is becoming much harder to digitally disconnect after work in a technology-driven world, making it difficult to switch off due to the temptation of answering a message or email with a mobile in hand and a laptop or a tablet close by, something which ends up eating away family time.

She highlighted that a staggering 97% of respondents of a FORUM study claimed to work after hours while 82% check emails during family time.

Ms Falzon also referred to French legislation which allows workers of certain companies to disconnect after work.

She also mentioned the fact that certain German companies jumped ahead of the curve, realising it may be better for overall work culture to self-regulate the Right to Digitally Disconnect. Volkswagen for instance, was first to implement a company-wide freeze on emails back in 2012. The company set its internal servers to not route email to individual accounts between 6.15 pm and 7 am.

Ms Falzon added that work overload leads to lesser production output.

However, it emerged from the round-table discussions at the conference that there are a lot of loopholes that need closing and more than meets the eye when discussing such topics.

Mental Health Commissioner Mr John Cachia also spoke at the end of the conference while representatives from the People and Standards Division gave an overview of the situation regarding the issue of work overload.

Moderators of the round-table discussions, including representatives of trade unions and employer associations, explained the outcome of their discussion.

Here’s a glance of what they said:

Mr Chris Attard (Forum Unions Maltin): “We discussed a number of questions on the impact on both employees and employers, as well as the way forward. Everyone agrees that there is a need to disconnect, however everyone within the organisation must be disconnected at the same time, otherwise the initiative would not function properly. The right to disconnect should be tailored within the context of the specific place of work, and not be a one-size-fits-all. There has to be an agreement between the workers, as part of a collective agreement where there are structures. Perhaps a board to regulate medium to large enterprises to make the right to disconnect work for everyone could be created. We agree that EU legislation should be established and highlight the general principles for implementation. Regarding SMEs, there could be a national agreement on the minimum requirements for the right to disconnect to be discussed between unions and associations. One must establish official communication channels as part of the ‘Right to Disconnect’. This ensures that proper channels are regulated, and in this case there will preferably be one official channel.”

Mr Marco Bonnici (Malta Union of Teachers): “There is a distinction between educators working within the school and their work at home. There is consensus that legislation is required on this, which ties both employers and employees. Many problems are being caused not just by employers, but also by employees. There is a choice not to reply to emails, but there are obvious consequences. As such, there must be a framework to regulate this. Even during working hours, break times should be respected. Working time should also not increase, and any work done after hours should be paid at overtime rates. Productivity will be impacted positively by the ‘Right to Disconnect’, as it will look to prevent burnout.”

Mr Josef Bugeja (General Workers’ Union): “The priority is the individual’s wellbeing. The employer should not send emails outside working hours, however it must be defined what is actually urgent. Emergency issues should be classified and a stance must be agreed upon. Legislation needs to be detailed and technical, ensuring that it is tailor-made. There is a distinction between local companies and foreign companies with local offices. There could be cases of Islamic companies in Malta which work on Sundays and don’t work on Fridays. Employers need to believe in this legislation and respect it. The employer has the obligation to ensure that this is implemented, and also has the right to disconnect. In cases of work done after hours, this should always be compensated at overtime rates. In terms of flexi-hours and teleworking, boundaries must be established. Its implementation must also respect health and safety regulations and the competitiveness of the Single Market.”

Mr Joe Farrugia (Malta Employers’ Association): “An important point is that flexibility is a must, because a one-size-fits-all won’t work. Different economic sectors have different needs, as well as on the basis of which position an individual occupies at work. The Working Time Directive has to be respected before the ‘Right to Disconnect’ is enshrined and implemented. In many workplaces, there is also the issue of a disturbance allowance. This is there so that individuals are compensated for replying to emails after-hours. How will this allowance be affected by the right to disconnect? When it comes to flexi-time, one must establish at what time the right to disconnect would be applicable. Flexibility is essential when it comes to SMEs. Many companies need a culture change; not all emails are urgent, and Friday night emails can wait until Monday.”

Ms Mary Gaerty (National Council of Women): “Educators do not have boundaries, since these are blurred. During working times, they are teaching so there is little time for them to connect with their heads. As such, certain communication has to take place after work hours. Classroom preparation and corrections also must take place after-hours. Guidance teachers have said that certain situations cannot wait and must be dealt with urgently, because this is a humanity issue. Teaching is not just a career but a vocation. There is a need to tailor solutions across different companies and for different situations.”

Ms Abigail Mamo (General Retailers and Traders Union): “The legislation is not the best way to tackle this issue. A lot of steps must be taken to make sure that this is effective. It has to cater for many different situations, people with different exigencies, and it must be enforceable. Malta has its own particularities, mainly on full employment and foreign workers. What is implemented must work for Malta. Work-life balance is extremely important. Awareness is something which must targeted to all individuals. There cannot be a discriminatory approach towards different individuals in different positions. Work-life balance is key to realising proper implementation of the right to disconnect. Unions have to ensure that certain workplaces need to be targeted specifically, such as education. This is because the way everything works is different to other places of work. Abuse is the main issue, and even though an employee has a disturbance allowance, 24/7 requirements constitute abuse. Employees can feel pressured by their colleagues who work extra hours and constantly reply to emails after hours. In cases of understaffing, this could result in extra pressure on individuals due to increased amounts of work.”

Mr Mario Sacco (UHM – Voice of the Workers): “Not everyone can make a distinction between their personal and professional lives, so there are individuals who cannot make such a distinction. Employees have that work which they have control over, and situations which the employer controls and can be imposed on the employee. When it comes to communication channels, we need to make sure that proper channels are always used, and that employers do not communicate with employees on the latter’s personal accounts. Same applies that employees should not use their personal emails for work purposes. If internet is provided by the employer, can the employee turn it off at some point? Two things are needed: education starts with our children, and the legal framework has to be clear and tailor-made to cater for all situations. Certain services also tie employees to be on call constantly, and therefore the right to disconnect must be defined here.”

Ms Maryanne Sant Fournier (The Confederation of Malta Trade Unions): “The current digital connection is having profound impacts on mental wellbeing, personal time of employees and personal relationships. The right to disconnect is not yet properly defined, and this definition must be accepted across the board. The principle has been accepted in many countries but now we need to move towards implementation. All roles have the right to disconnect and tailor-made solutions are required. Management must be empowered to lead and must lead by example. Respect should be across the board throughout the whole organisation. There must be discussions between unions and employers, and the directive on work-life balance is an opportunity for ensuring proper implementation.

Dr John Cachia (Commissioner of Mental Health): “The environment of today’s discussion is different to that of 10 or 15 years ago. Today, we finally acknowledge that the mental health of employees can be affected at the workplace, and it can be properly discussed and tackled. There must be education towards self-respect, to ensure that whatever your work is, you must discipline yourself towards proper time management. This self-discipline must be properly implemented during working hours. There must be clear guidelines on what is urgent, how communication takes place, and some form of cut-off lines. Mental health costs Malta 400 million euros, mostly unproductive times at the workplace.” (OECD and EU statistics).

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