Portugal recently made headlines by banning bosses from texting and emailing employees outside of their contracted working hours. The ban is part of the country’s new set of laws that aim to improve work-life balance in response to the post-Covid explosion of remote work.
Companies with more than 10 employees will risk fines if they contact workers outside their hours. The enhanced protections will also allow people with children to work from home indefinitely. In addition, employers may have to contribute to covering employees’ bills, such as for energy and internet, when they increase due to working from home.
Portugal isn’t the first or only country modernizing its labor laws and policies. Countries like France, Spain, Slovakia, Italy, and Germany, for example, have all implemented some form of “the right to disconnect” in a bid to create clearer boundaries between professional and private lives by empowering people to switch off after working hours.
This has arguably never been more important than it is today. Unsustainable workloads and hours are massive drivers of stress, anxiety, and burnout. There’s hardly any doubt that protections for worker mental health are vital. The trickier part of this equation has become figuring out a different question: What are “working hours”?
The flexwork revolution
With Covid-19 and the great global reimagining of the workplace came a massive influx of different forms of flexwork. More people than ever are getting to make their own hours and choose their locations. In addition to countries creating legislation to appeal to and empower location-independent workers, savvy employers are creating official flex policies to guide staff towards working arrangements that suit them best.
People with children, for example, may choose—or, more accurately, need—to care for their children in the middle of a traditional work day and resume work later in the evening or on the weekend. Some early birds may begin their day before their coworkers are even awake, and sign off earlier in the afternoon.
Add to this globally distributed teams scattered around multiple time zones, and it’s looking inevitable that the concept of “working hours” as we know it will never mean what it used to mean. Not only is the 9-to-5 long dead in many industries, but an increasing number of people aren’t even working in one continuous stretch throughout the day.
The upshot is that while remote work is widely hailed as improving productivity, research also shows that remote employees are working longer, having more meetings, and keeping up with more communication channels than before the pandemic.
Nearly 70 percent of people who switched over to remote work because of the pandemic say they now work on weekends. 45 percent report regularly working more hours than before, and working parents are more likely to work weekends and more than eight hours a day than those who don’t have children.
Can flexibility and boundaries coexist in the workplace?
The point of flexible working arrangements is to be a win-win-win for individuals, teams, and customers, not to create chronically overworked employees who are reluctant to sign off for the day because someone might need something from them. This is why clear boundaries are a must, and why updates to labor laws, such as Portugal’s recent announcement, may be part of the answer.
But at the same time, because flexibility means different things to different people, a blanket ban on phone calls or messages after a certain time may be difficult to enforce. Flexibility should improve work-life balance for individuals, making them happier and more engaged at work. For some, that may actually involve working “after hours”.
The key is to differentiate between people choosing their own hours and people feeling pressured into being accessible at all times. For employers, this means being explicit about priorities and expectations so employees can fit work into their lives in a way that allows for clear boundaries. It also means clear-cut, mutual expectations and guidelines for responsiveness:
- When are people expected to read and respond to emails, texts, or any other form of communication?
- Under which circumstances (if any) is it acceptable to call or text during an employee’s off hours?
Portugal’s move to enforce boundaries in the workplace isn’t a magical, one-size-fits all solution to work-life balance. But it is a clear and welcome sign that the country is taking employee wellbeing seriously and creating a healthy, attractive work culture. Other countries, take note!
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