By Conor Courtney
The pandemic, as a whole, has had a widespread effect on the nature of work life within Europe and globally. Ideas of working from home, telecommuting, and flexi-working were once a highly sought-after arrangement, and suddenly these became commonplace. At times, these working environments were required by law for many professions, and now it seems that many of these approaches to working have remained in place, whether to protect the more vulnerable who might still require such measures, or simply to align with employee preferences in this new world.
Continental Europe is at the forefront of developing legislation to tackle the issue of work-related stress, which is often aimed at reducing working hours, and encouraging support for employees suffering from work-related fatigue. In January 2022, Belgium passed legislation mandating that civil servants would no longer be required to respond to emails or phone calls outside of their contracted working hours. This approach follows a wider trend in the EU which is focusing on the novel “right to disconnect” being afforded to workers. The law, which will impact 65,000 federal officials, entitles them to declare themselves “unavailable” at the end of the normal working day unless there are “exceptional” reasons for not doing so.
Belgium’s government has stated that there are plans to extend this right to the private sector, despite opposition by some business groups. This news comes in the wake of a recent survey on remote working, in which more than 84% of Belgians said they would like to continue to work from home for two or more days a week post-pandemic. Without a corresponding right to disconnect there would be no regulation on working conditions for such employees, with Petra De Sutter, the Belgian minister for public administration, stating that the law was necessary to combat a culture of people feeling they should always be available.
The Belgian approach to workers’ rights mirrors a general shift in European attitudes which has developed over the previous years. For example, in 2017, France became the centre of a work-life balance debate, when organisations with more than 50 workers were required to allow employees to ignore their company smartphones and laptops. Meanwhile, only last year Portugal approved legislation that placed fines on employers with more than 10 staff members, if they texted, phoned or emailed workers outside of work hours. However, similar stances on the right to disconnect have been present in Germany for the last decade. In 2012, Volkswagen banned select employees from accessing their emails after hours to avoid burnout.
Although restricting contact outside of working hours can definitely impact the extent of burnout, there is also a movement within the EU attempting to prevent burnout in the first place. Belgium was the first country to establish specific legislation on well-being at work, as far back as 1996. The prevention of psychological risks at work and the protection of mental health in the workplace are seen as a priority and are part of the Belgian National Strategy on Well-being at Work 2016–2020. In March 2017, a new law in Belgium introduced a “donation system” whereby one colleague could transfer leave to another to facilitate the work–life balance of employees and reduce burnout. Similarly, in 2013 the German Labour Protection Act and Austrian Health and Safety at Work Act were amended to include “psychological strain” as a risk factor that needs to be avoided in workplaces. Under this law, employers are required to evaluate workplaces with respect to psychological strain that can cause health problems, and find and implement adequate remedies. This is similar to the Danish approach, where the Danish Working Environment Act allows for sanctions to be applied where there are issues in relation to the psychological environment in companies when there is a high risk of mental overload.
Ultimately, the landscape of the working environment in Europe is quickly evolving, as is the rest of the world. However, that is not to say that this issue is at the forefront of all EU policy debates around worker burnout. In 2018, the Eurofound report “Working conditions Burnout in the workplace: A review of data and policy responses in the EU” found that there were no specific policies addressing worker burnout in Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Norway, and Poland, and only limited discussion in Croatia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The wider debate of burnout is a pressing one, and an area to watch in the European sphere, and beyond.