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Checking work emails on own time a health hazard

25 January 2017

How often do you check your mobile phone for work related emails?

When you are waiting at the doctors or for a bus? During an ad break on television? When a meal is cooking? Before you go to sleep and first thing in the morning when you wake up?

Personal reflection and discussion with friends would suggest that for most people the time is significant and the occasions are many. But reflect a moment on my question. I think you will be surprised by the conclusions you reach.

Common sense suggests that you are not benefiting from time off work the more your mind is on work while you are away. Similarly, you do not benefit by less often having discrete and prolonged rest periods from your work. In other words living the job during your waking hours is ultimately harmful for your health.

Studies support common sense and indicate that people are spending more and more time outside office hours on work using the instant technology we possess.

According to David Solomon of Goldman Sachs "everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks".

Modern technology means at a push of a button we can have access to our work, regardless of where we are. This is great for business and commerce, but there is a human cost.

As you would expect studies have shown that work contact outside of work hours often harms your health.

A 2014 European Union study looked at the link between work-related contacts outside of work hours and the risk of reporting health problems.

The study concluded that even a small amount of supplemental work beyond contractually agreed work hours may increase the risk of work-related health impairments.

Employees have a responsibility to protect their health and should not needlessly be addicted to their mobile phones and their emails.

Indeed some of the studies suggest that people's self-esteem is linked with being needed and that is one reason for their inability to take their finger off their mobile phone technology.

Self-restraint and participating with their employer in developing sensible policies are part of what the employee can do. Self-restraint will be particularly important in the case of senior executives.

Is there a way of benefiting from modern technology and more immediate communication without harming people's health? That is the challenge.

France gives us an example of an attempt to do so.

In 2014, some of France's biggest unions reached an agreement with some of the world's largest companies, including Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The agreement gave nearly 250,000 workers the right to not check their emails during legally mandated rest periods without facing retribution.

On January 1 the French Government took the next step of enacting legislation to extend this protection to more of the population.

All entities that employ at least 50 workers will now have to take steps to protect this 'right to disconnect'. Given the impact this might have on employers, the French Government is leaving it to companies to negotiate with workers on how the needs of the business can be balanced with the right to disconnect.

If the parties cannot agree on a policy, the employer must draw up a charter after consulting with the workers' council or staff delegates.

The charter must define the procedures to be followed by the company and workers in exercising the 'right to disconnect'. The Charter is also to set out measures for training and awareness-raising activities on the reasonable use of digital tools.

So what does New Zealand need to do about this issue?

One option would be to follow the French approach. However, New Zealand is not France.

In 2014, 43 per cent of employees in New Zealand were employed by an enterprise with less than 50 employees. Furthermore, 97 per cent of enterprises had fewer than 20 employees. Many employees in New Zealand would not be caught by the French legislation.

New Zealand employers often have a strong independent streak, perhaps due to their small size. I expect there would be widespread resistance to implementing a New Zealand version of the French legislation.

A more acceptable approach may be individual employers developing guidelines in a health and safety context, with worker input. It would seem to be a good starting point.

Employers do have obligations to protect workers against harm to their health, safety and welfare by eliminating or minimising risks so far as is reasonably practicable. Accordingly they should ideally develop such guidelines.

Of course some employers will do nothing. Should the issue be brought before the courts whether by way of personal grievance or a prosecution by WorkSafe New Zealand Act, guidelines will be decided through such litigation.

This is a much less precise pathway because cases are limited to their facts and the courts decide very general principles. A better approach is for employers to develop a policy which fits their needs and those of their workers.

Where matters can only be resolved through the courts the risk to employers is of having their good name damaged and being exposed, in the case of a prosecution, to significant penalties.

We would all agree that the new technology evolving almost continuously strengthens immeasurably the speed of communication. This can only be a good thing.

However the health of employees is also precious and needs to be an important consideration as the frontiers of technology continue to unfold.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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