Kenya joins France and Portugal in proposing a law on the right to separate

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What do a Kenyan lawmaker, a restaurant manager in France and a Portuguese minister have in common?

They are staunch supporters of the right to switch off after work. That means no more work calls while you sit down to dinner or weekend emails from the boss.

From the great resignation to the quiet cessation, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature and scope of working life. But worker fatigue is a problem that predates the coronavirus, and experts say the need to disconnect has only become more urgent with the advent of hybrid and remote work.

As homes turned into offices during the pandemic, Kenyan lawmaker Samson Kiprotich Cherargei found that work had exceeded the country’s mandated maximum of 52 hours a week for six days. Employers in Kenya could be prevented from contacting workers after hours or at weekends, under a new bill due to be read in Parliament this month.

“In the age of the virtual office, it’s important to create legislation to mark the transition from the physical office to protecting mental health, avoiding burnout and ensuring family time,” he said.

Several other countries, mainly in Europe, have laws protecting workers from being harassed by their bosses after hours.

France, famous for its 35-hour week, pioneered such a law when it gave workers the right to ignore work communication outside of work hours in 2017.

“Employees physically leave the office, but they don’t leave their jobs. You stay connected with some kind of electronic leash – like a dog,” Socialist Party MP Benoit Hamon told the BBC at the time.

It has become a way of life in France. Gwendoline Dessaux, 37, a manager at a restaurant and climbing center in the city of Strasbourg, doesn’t take her cell phone on holiday and this year has instructed her staff not to contact her when she’s off work.

“I’m all yours Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but leave me alone the rest of the time,” Dessaux said, telling her staff.

The only exceptions: a health emergency or if a fire breaks out.

Italy, Belgium, Spain and Ireland have since followed, as has Portugal at the end of 2021. Ana Catarina Mendes, Portugal’s minister for parliamentary affairs, said via email that the pandemic had made the need for such a law urgent.

While it is still too early to assess the impact of the legislation, she said, companies, workers and regulators are now more aware of this “new reality”.

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The specifics of “right to separation” laws vary from country to country. In Belgium, the right has been granted to government employees, while Portuguese rules apply to companies with more than 10 employees, and violators face fines.

Under the Kenyan proposal, which has yet to be discussed in Parliament, workers will be paid extra for responding to employers outside of working hours and workers will be protected from retaliation if they choose to ignore such contact.

In Canada, the province of Ontario has such a policy, and the Australian state of Queensland granted similar digital disconnection rights to teachers in December.

Experts say that amid the fatigue and anxiety caused by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever for workers to be able to disconnect from their jobs.

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, a management professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal who recently co-authored an article on the right to separate, said via email that detachment from work means being able to pursue another activity without to be guilty of work not done.

“The problem is that people who feel guilty after work or ruminate about work never really get to rest and replenish their ‘resource pool’ to return to work with energy, commitment and creativity,” she told Factors That Cause Phenomena as the Great Resignation and Quiet Giving Up explain.

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But in countries like the United States and India, this debate has not been widely disseminated. The New York City Council failed to pass a bill in 2018 that would ban private employers from requiring employees to check and reply to emails outside of work hours.

In the United States, debate on the issue is being stymied for political rather than cultural reasons, said Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The political divide we are witnessing today does not lend itself to a meaningful and honest debate about worker protections in this area,” she said via email, adding that there is still a myth that a comfortable working life is the would make workers lazy.

“That’s incorrect because the research literature has shown for decades that the greatest productivity comes from workers who are healthy, feel safe and comfortable,” Banks said.

In Kenya, an employers’ association said the proposed law would eventually lead to indiscipline in the workplace, local media reported. But for some workers, it could create an environment conducive not only to better work but to stay with a company longer.

Daniel Mwangi, 37, quit his job as a retail manager in Nairobi in 2021 after growing tired of 4am emails and 9pm check-in calls from his boss. He had started to lose weight and felt anxious most of the time. The next job he took was not much different, and he eventually went into self-employment.

“I am a big supporter of the right to separate. People can focus better when they de-stress and aren’t on call 24/7,” he said. “I’m much happier now.”

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