The ‘right to disconnect’ from your emails

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The ‘right to disconnect’ from your emails

E-mails have become synonymous with the workplace, with our definition of productivity, and as of late, a meaningful way to engage, communicate or collaborate with colleagues and clients alike. It has also become a metric in terms of how we quantify our levels of productivity as well as ensuring that our respective bosses are able to see ‘just how busy’ we really are. But, is this a true indication of all of these things, or is it just a way to quell any feelings of work place inadequacies, or a way to avoid the phone while still connecting with others? It’s hard to imagine a time before emails, or an office environment where faxes were still a favoured method of quick messaging, and sending something by post was still an effective and efficient means of communication.

Well, we can credit Ray Tomlinson with inventing emails in 1971 as he developed the system that allowed the effective means of sending a mail to users via the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). This was achieved by inserting the ‘@’ sign to ensure that the user is linked with the relevant destination server. Just like most digital means of communication, checking emails continuously has become an almost auto-pilot function, it’s something that we often do without thinking and for some it’s the first thing that is done in the morning and the last thing done at night because not being ‘always on’ and ‘always connected’ may be perceived as us not being invested in our careers, clients or education and not responding to something ‘immediately’ makes us feel anxious, guilty or inefficient. The question that we should really be asking is how does something like an electronic mail have the ability to evoke such feelings in us and how do we better manage this in order to set some healthy boundaries and remain sane? Do we as employees have a right to disconnect?

There is a proposed human right that certainly thinks so, and advocates for exactly that. The Right to Disconnect was originally proposed in France in 2017; with the aim of negotiating and implementing work-related policies allowing employees to ‘disconnect’ from their inboxes and other forms of work-related electronic communications outside of work hours, particularly in the evenings or over weekends. Myriam El Khomri who was the minister of Labour at the time believed that this would be a good step in reducing “work-place burnout.” With the emergence and subsequent reliance on digital tools as means of communication has also erased some of the more innate boundary lines that were in place in the office space previously. We now have the ability and flexibility to be always on and to take our work with us wherever we go, which can have a detrimental impact on our social and private lives.

While European companies have been implementing and pushing for the Right to Disconnect, have we been doing the same from a South African perspective? While we do have some laws in place, we have not yet definitively expressed the need for the implementation or adoption of the ‘right to disconnect.’ In SA we have the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) which regulates working hours and overtime; however this too is subject to certain thresholds and is therefore not applicable across the board. Lauren Salt, an executive in ENSafrica’s employment department, believes that “technology has irrefutably allowed for increased connectivity across time zones, inherently making many businesses more efficient. However, employers generally may, in future, start to see pushback during the negotiation of employment agreements, especially with millennials and Gen Zs entering the job market.”


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