It’s a Friday night and you just left work to meet up with friends. You’re racing through the city, almost to the event when your phone buzzes and you see three new work emails come through. Too many of us would stop and reply even though we are already off the clock. In a unique bill raised in New York City, companies with over 10 employees could soon be banned from requiring employees to respond outside of work hours.
Called the “Right to Disconnect” bill, this legislation is the first of its kind in the United States. New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal (D) introduced the bill because of the high rates of burnout affecting workers. New York is the ‘city that never sleeps’ and that means working at all hours of the day and night is tempting.
Some have spoken out against the bill, citing industries such as the financial sector where workers may need to be available at any time of day to deal with markets in differing time zones. They believe that a blanket ban on communication outside of work hours could bar these individuals from doing their jobs. This could be true… if that’s what the bill was really for.
Upon closer inspection, the bill does not bar employers or clients from calling, texting, emailing, or messaging workers after an employee has clocked out. It also does not specifically ban employees from responding. The bill is designed to protect workers against “any threat, discipline, discharge, demotion, suspension, reduction in employee hours, or any other adverse employment action” taken as a result of non-communication.1
Work and non-work hours for each level of employee would be spelled out in writing by the company and would include paid time off, sick leave, and personal days. Paid leave of any sort is categorized by this bill as non-work hours. This is particularly important because over 66% of people admit to working while on vacation.2 A vacation that involves work will not reap the benefits of a totally relaxing vacation with no pressure to communicate with the office.
For a simple violation, the company will be required to pay a $250 fine per occurrence. For violations that involve company retaliation, the company will be responsible for providing full compensation, including lost benefits, and equitable relief on top of a $500 fine. Violations resulting in termination of the employee are fined at $2500, plus full compensation, equitable relief, and potential reinstatement.
Those who argue for the bill cite its powerful ability to combat burnout and promote a healthy work/life balance. Burnout is a real epidemic that affects millions of workers at a high cost to businesses. Overwork and stress can lead to mental exhaustion, apathy towards work or the company, and even psychosomatic symptoms and illness. People who do not set clear boundaries between work and relaxation are less likely to take care of their health or participate in social activities. A 2017 study found that workers spend an average of eight hours a week answering work emails outside of work hours.3 In contrast, the average person only socialized or communicated with friends for an average of 39 minutes per day, about 4.5 hours per week total.4
Whether this bill passes or not, it begs the question, should we be working outside of work hours? The evidence answers with a resounding NO. Time away from work, whether it be a vacation, the weekend, or just overnight, is critical to resting and recharging. Workers are more balanced and productive when they choose to disconnect outside of work. And soon they may have the legal right to do so.