Portugal has taken the significant step to protect employee wellbeing and mental health by banning employers from contacting staff outside of normal work hours.
It’s no understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has instituted some radical changes across societies, far beyond just attempts to maintain health controls and mitigate the direct risks of the virus. The rise of working from home as a measure to help stem transmission of COVID, for example, has introduced a newfound focus on drawing a clearer delineation between work and home life.
To that end, earlier this month – following legislation put forward by the ruling Socialist Party to improve the work-life balance of remote workers – Portugal took the important step of passing new labour laws that ban employers from contacting employees by phone, message or email outside of normal working hours.
The new law states that: 'The employer must respect the privacy of the worker,' including periods of rest and family time, with any violation constituting a "serious" offence that could result in a fine. Employers are also forbidden from monitoring their employees while they work at home, and employees now have the right to opt-out of remote work should they wish, or the right to request to opt-in if an arrangement is compatible with their job.
There are some limits to the reach of these steps, though. For example, Portugal's new measures will not apply to companies with fewer than 10 employees, and a proposal to include the so-called ‘right to disconnect’ among the changes – the legal right to switch off work-related messages and devices outside of office hours – was rejected by Portuguese MPs.
Portugal isn’t the only country looking to modernise its labour laws in terms of regulating a healthier work/home-life balance. France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Slovakia, Italy, the Philippines, Argentina and India all now have measures in place that allow workers to abstain from working and communicating with their employers during designated rest periods, without fear of punishment.
Writing in the Guardian, parliamentary leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party Ana Catarina Mendes said: “For us, this is as an essential move to strengthen the boundaries needed for a good work-life balance.
“There should be a boundary between the time when an employer’s authority prevails, and the time when the worker’s autonomy should prevail. There should be a boundary between the time in which a worker is a resource in the service of the person paying their salary, and the time in which they should be the owner of a life that is not all about work.
“We have introduced these new labour laws to avoid the blurring of the boundary between the time we spend serving others and family time. The boundary between time as a commodity with a financial value, and the precious time remaining for the enjoyment of life.”
Speaking about these issues, Gosia Bowling, national lead for emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, said: 'Remote working can provide key emotional wellbeing benefits, for example, allowing employees to spend more time with family or exercising in daylight hours. As individuals adopt flexible working patterns that suit them – for example, working into the evening to accommodate the morning school run – team leaders should reiterate that employees shouldn’t feel pressured to reply to emails out of their individual hours, and encourage them to switch devices off after work.
“'t’s important to remember, though, that no one wellbeing intervention suits everyone. Support should be tailored to individual staff members and employers should take the time to make sure flexible arrangements work for the individual…
'Emotional wellbeing support can be seamlessly adapted to meet the needs of remote workers and it’s up to employers to signpost them. This may include providing access to Employee Assistance Programmes [EAPs] or remote cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT], which provide direct telephone access to a mental health specialist. These sessions allow individuals to speak with a psychotherapist who can help individuals to understand and address unhelpful behaviour and thinking patterns, reduce distress and increase productivity.'
Gosia also pointed out that, more than just mental health, employers should remember there are also important physical and financial considerations to take into account with working from home policies.
'Do employees have an ergonomic working set-up and if not, can you support them with equipment to make home-working a sustainable option? This may also include providing a laptop, so you’re not adding [to employees] financial pressures,' she said.
This is another area that Portugal's new laws also address, with practical requirements for home working now set out far more clearly. The measures state that employers are now responsible for providing workers with the appropriate tools to do their jobs remotely and they should reimburse workers for any additional expenses they might incur while working from home, including things such as gas or electricity bills.