I’ve always found it difficult to switch off. It’s probably the root cause of all my stress and anxiety. So maybe having a right to switch off enshrined in law might make me more likely to pay attention. After all, I’m a stickler when it comes to the law.
This pandemic has done nothing for our work-life balance. What life? Between March and May 2020, I spent 51 days in my flat in Barcelona. I didn’t step over the threshold once. During this time, I became even more of a workaholic. If I wasn’t eating or sleeping, I was working. Work has always been an escape for me. If I ever needed a distraction from everything else in my life, my studies and now my career has always been the perfect distraction. I needed to pass the time for 51 days and try and forget about a global pandemic and the fact that my family and most of my friends were in other countries, and I couldn’t get to them. What better way to do that than immerse myself in the intricacies of translation between the French and English legal jurisdictions. I also decided to design my website during lockdown after buying the domain name the previous year and just not getting round to it. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to ensure that you’ll have plenty of time on your hands.
While employed in the legal profession, I didn’t have a company phone, so I wouldn’t have dreamed of having my work emails on my personal phone. Data protection and client confidentiality aside, I only used my phone when I wasn’t working, so it would have made no sense to have it pinging left, right and centre when I was out of the office. After any annual leave from my day job, checking my emails was always a mammoth task and the thing I dreaded most about returning to the office. It genuinely gave me heart palpitations when I had a few hundred emails to read through, mainly comprising generic firm emails or those trying to find the owner of some funds that credited the client account two weeks ago. Fast forward seven years, and I had my emails on my laptop, iPhone, and iPad. I literally couldn’t escape them. Sometimes it seemed like the personal and professional parts of my day were blurred, especially as most professional activities now seem very personal to me as a small business owner. My business is my baby. How the tables have turned! Now, I wouldn’t dream of not having my work emails on my phone. Who else will reply to my clients? It’s this nagging concern that often drove me to check my emails incessantly. I’ve always had severe FOMO in all aspects of my life, and work is no different. What happens if I miss that important email from an existing client? What happens if I don’t respond immediately to an enquiry from a new client? The world won’t end, but sometimes we think it will.
As freelancers, we’re able to develop our own habits to our heart’s content. But unfortunately, we don’t always develop good ones. I realised that I was developing some harmful habits, and I needed to nip them in the bud. Recently, I’ve been developing some healthier habits to help me to try and switch off more and reduce my blue light exposure. Here are a few things I’ve started doing that have helped me to switch off and reduce my blue light exposure in the process:
- I switch my phone off at 8 pm every night so that my brain and my body know it’s time to relax and start winding down for bed.
- I don’t have any work emails on my phone, so I have to physically get up and go to my laptop to check my work emails. This is particularly handy for minimising distractions during coffee and lunch breaks.
- When I’m out of the office on holiday, I only check my emails at midday every few days to appease the workaholic in me and give me the peace of mind that the world hasn’t ended while I’ve been away. It also helps me feel less anxious about opening my emails for the first time when I get back to the office.
I’ve found that removing my emails from my phone has really helped me unplug because they were just distractions. I’m human, and I can’t always drop everything at the drop of a hat, especially when I’m trying to grab some much-needed lunch in between back-to-back client calls, translation work and teaching legal English. I’ve been more conscious of this since having a proper Christmas break without emails, and it’s now a practice I will adopt permanently (unless I’m on the move). I was developing an unhealthy relationship with my emails and checking them all the time, so I knew I needed to kick the habit.
The pandemic didn’t change my working from home life very much, but I can imagine it was quite a shock to the system for those used to working in an office. According to The Guardian, EU research shows that the percentage of people who started to WFH full-time rocketed from 5% in 2019 to almost 40% last spring. And as a result, the work-life balance is officially all out of sync. This pandemic has completely changed how some professions work. Previous employers who wouldn’t have dreamed of allowing their employees to work from home before have now embraced it with open arms. Something I thought the legal profession would never do.
I’d never heard of Zoom fatigue or Zoom for that matter until April 2020, when I attended the BP 20 Translation Conference, which was online, of course. This four-day event was fantastic, but it was still surprisingly tiring and watching and listening to a computer for four days certainly took it out of me. Hence, Zoom fatigue. It’s real. Take it from me.
Now I’m going to throw some stats at you. Be warned, they are terrifying!
- 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 found employees working from home in the UK, Austria, Canada, and the US are at their computer an extra two hours a day.
Wow, that blew my mind but, I’m not that surprised. I’m probably part of the problem. Also, I love the term remote army. What a great way to describe us!
I just don’t think that employment law was ready for this pandemic. Who was? Take “furlough”, for example. The word or the legal concept didn’t even exist in English employment law until the pandemic hit. We had to look to the US and countries with civil law systems such as France to find an employment concept to support employers and employees across the country. The changes brought about in the way we work, including remote working, have revolutionised the digital workplace’s legal implications. Employment law needs to catch up and fast, particularly with anxiety, depression, interrupted sleep patterns and burnout rising among the remote army. And we all know that checking emails and keeping devices on is a massive contributing factor to this. It’s time for employment law to get real.
Did you know that those who work remotely have no right to switch off outside working hours under EU law? Regardless of Brexit, EU law will still impact our domestic law to a certain extent as we have complied with it for so long, and if we didn’t, we would find ourselves unable to keep up with future employment practices in the EU Member States. The EU’s Working Time Directive 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, but you don’t have a right to switch off.
We find ourselves needing to adapt the law to the new world that we live in. In January, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution calling on the European Commission to propose a law allowing remote workers to disconnect outside their working hours.
French law is way ahead of this new trend. Twenty years ago, France introduced a 35-hour working week limit for companies with more than 20 employees and then extended this to smaller companies. This practice paved the way for a ruling in 2004 by France’s Cour de Cassation against an ambulance company’s decision to fire a driver for not answering his personal phone outside of working hours. Since then, BNP Paribas and Orange have introduced rules against contacting employees outside of their working hours. In 2017, France introduced a law that required companies with more than 50 employees to draw up a charter that set out times when staff should not send or answer emails, creating the world’s first “right to disconnect” law. However, France’s legislation is often non-binding in the event of disagreement to sign a charter.
As with translation, cultural references also have a role to play in employment law. Naturally, employment practices will differ from country to country. What is appropriate for one country may not be suitable for another country. A Polish expat living in France referred to the lunch break as a sacred entity only to be missed if there was a war or earthquake. That’s quite a bold claim. My lunch break experience in English law firms taught me that the lunch break was very much discretionary. In years gone by, I sometimes ate my lunch at my desk or skipped it altogether. Why do you think I moved to Spain? Although now I’m freelance, I’m free to do what I like, when I want anyway. Although the French law may not be as enforceable as its critics would like, it certainly supports a different work culture.
Other EU countries have also jumped on the bandwagon and considered the “right to disconnect”. Canada, India, the Philippines, and the United States have also considered where employees stand. It seems that the UK is way behind the times.
I think the “right to disconnect” is a good one, and I’ve already implemented it in my business because I’m free to do so as a freelancer. Suppose I don’t reply to a client email at the weekend. Maybe the client will be happy that they’ve chosen a professional who has a life outside work. Perhaps, receiving an answer at the weekend might even wreak of desperation. It also sets a dangerous precedent if I reply at midnight or the weekend. It’s all about managing my client’s expectations. I’ll go above and beyond for my clients, but I’m no use to them if I’m burnt out. They deserve a healthy, focused, and better version of me.
However, often employees don’t have the luxury of flexibility, and they rely on employment legislation to shape their working practices. As with any law, there’s always a danger it won’t be flexible enough for the entire workforce. If I want to work past 5 pm, I should be able to, and if I want to swap a weekday for a Saturday or a Sunday, I should be free to do so. I’m a freelancer precisely so that I’m in charge of my destiny, and I don’t have to work nine to five. I’m sure the parents trying to work between home schooling and looking after their children would also appreciate flexibility when they log on and off, which law might not be able to offer.
I believe in the “right to disconnect”, but I’m not sure a legal right is the answer for the remote army. It’s up to us to build healthy, not harmful, habits.
I would love to hear about your healthy (and harmful) habits in your home office. You can find me on all the usual social media networks or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get in touch. I don’t bite, I promise!