The German Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, Andrea Nahles, recently announced plans to develop new “anti-stress” legislation which would prevent employers from contacting their workforce outside office hours.
Some German companies have already implemented policies of this kind. For example, Volkswagen announced in 2011 that its servers would stop sending emails to smartphones between 6pm and 7am and Allianz has assured its workforce that emails do not need to be answered on weekends or during holiday time. Similarly, Daimler recently implemented a “mail on holiday” policy which enables employees automatically to delete incoming emails during holidays, with the sender being informed they can contact an alternative designated employee if necessary. Telekom, E.ON, Bayer and Henkel all have policies in place which provide that employees are not obliged to read or answer emails during their free time.
A similar development can be seen in France, where a collective bargaining agreement was recently adopted in the engineering, IT and digital services sector, relating to the obligation for workers to disconnect from remote communication tools.
Andrea Nahles now seems to want to go one step further and pave the way for national legislation. But is this an area where the legislator should really intervene? Unsurprisingly, Ms Nahles’ plans are hotly disputed in Germany, even within the country’s coalition government. Critics argue that industry sectors and production processes are too different for a uniform approach and it should be left to companies and employee representatives to find their own solutions on this issue.
Others consider that restricting business communications in this way would impede Germany’s progression in the global economy. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a harsh critic of a national legislation, has recently emphasised that German employers should not expect regulation on this matter to be forthcoming.
There is certainly no prospect of national legislation being enacted in the very near future. For the time being, the Ministry has instructed the Federal Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health to start researching the scientific evidence for a relationship between psychological diseases and workers’ constant availability. The research is being conducted over a two-year period, with the first results not expected until next year. It will not be until 2016 that the Ministry may have a legitimate basis for proposing specific measures.