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Can Europe effectively legislate the right to work-life balance?

FILE PHOTO: A man works in his kitchen while workers are forced to work from home and demand payback for extra home office costs during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sassenheim, Netherlands October 2, 2020. Picture taken October 2, 2020.
Reuters/Eva Plevier/File Photo
New legislation could freeze the always-on culture around remote work.
  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter


In 2019, Alex Agius Saliba was running for a seat in the European Parliament. As he drove around his native country of Malta, knocking on doors, and speaking to people about their problems, he noticed a trend: families overwhelmed with responsibilities; fathers replying to emails in the evenings; mothers feeling stressed and exhausted; children feeling neglected. The trouble, he felt, was that the line between work and life had become blurred.

Saliba looked around at what other EU member states were doing about this and came upon a law passed in France in 2016 giving workers the right to disconnect from work-related emails, calls, and other forms of digital communication outside of their working hours. This right part of a broad reform of the country’s labor code following a wave of employee suicides in high-profile companies in France in the 2000s. These tragic events fueled the fight for the protection of worker’s physical and mental health—or what the French call “psychosocial risks” (some links in French).

The right to disconnect from emails is not the labor equivalent of a first-world problem—blue-collar workers face the pressure of digital tools too. In fact, one of the legal rulings that laid the foundation for the right to disconnect in France involved a paramedic who was fired in 2014 because he didn’t pick up his phone when his employer called outside of working hours with an emergency. The court ruled that “not being reachable outside working hours on his personal mobile phone…does not justify dismissal for serious misconduct.”

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