Right to Disconnect: New York May Enforce Work-Life Balance for Stressed Workers

A new law could make it illegal for employers in New York to expect their employees to check their emails outside of their official working hours.

Brooklyn Councilman Rafael Espinal put forward The Right to Disconnect Bill on Thursday afternoon. If passed, it would make New York City the first American city to ban private employers from demanding workers be on call after they have clocked off.

"I think that because of technology, the lines have been blurred on when the work day begins and when the work day ends, and there are employers who take advantage of that fact," Espinal told the city's Observer news website.

He said he hopes the law would be a "win-win" for both parties: It would allow workers to "decompress, reduce anxiety and be able to perform better when they get to the work the next day."

A New York City councilor hopes to pass the Right to Disconnect Bill. If ratified, it would make New York City the first American city to ban private employers from demanding workers be on call after they have clocked off. Olu Eletu/Unsplash

Espinal added that New Yorkers are excited about the law. Though some employers have expressed concern about how it would be put into practice.

Under the proposal, it would be unlawful for businesses with 10 or more staff members to require employees to check and respond to emails and other electronic communications outside of contracted hours. Businesses that breach the rule would be fined $250.

Firms that retaliate against employees who comply with the law will be required to compensate the wages and benefits lost by their staff, and pay a $500 fine. The penalty rises to $2,500 in the case of an employee being fired.

The proposal is the latest bid by lawmakers to help employees strike a work-life balance, as technology risks turning the home into an extension of the office.

In 2016, France passed a law requiring companies with more than 50 workers to each draw up a charter of good conduct outlining when workers are not expected to respond to emails.

"All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant," Benoit Hamon, a Socialist French Parliament member, told BBC News at the time.

"Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails—they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down," he said.

"Recent research has shown that individuals who work 55 hours or more per week have a 33 percent increased risk of stroke compared to those who work between 35 to 40 hours, and a 13 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease," Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies, told Newsweek.

"If employees were given a legal 'right to disconnect' this may encourage more employers to moderate their expectations of employees and allow them to re-establish a boundary between home and work."

But he questioned how easy it is to implement in a competitive work environment.

"The problem with this is that organizational cultures which drive high-intensity working are less likely to be sympathetic to the idea that 'working anywhere' might have downsides for employees," he said.

"They will argue that it should be a matter of personal choice and that working in a 24-hour global economy and responding to the demands of customers is ultimately the biggest priority for business. Ambitious employees will not want to appear uncommitted to the business by claiming the right to disconnect, and some managers will regard those who do as lacking drive and ambition to progress. In some organizational cultures disconnecting may lead to 'career death.'"

It is rather the responsibility of those in senior positions to set the tone when it comes to a work-life balance, said Bevan.

"We need more employers to recognize that the high-intensity and long-hours working which can result from technology is not sustainable, and can ultimately damage employee health, motivation and productivity," he said.