January 1, 2017 saw the introduction of a new law in France which permits employees, in organisations of more than 50 people, to ignore emails after working hours. The so-called “Right to Disconnect” has been introduced to reduce the intrusion of work-related digital devices after working hours in order to balance workers’ professional and personal lives. So what does this mean for Ireland?

Electronic communications have become fundamental to the success of most businesses in Ireland today. The negative impact of this is the expectation held by clients and customers that businesses and service providers are always switched on. The use of mobile technology has provided workers unable to commit to “conventional office hours” with enhanced levels of flexibility and autonomy.

In many cases, “conventional office hours” simply do not apply to employees of international organisations based in Ireland. With customers and colleagues based in locations across the globe, working after 5.30pm has become a necessary part of the day-to-day work for certain employees. But is this lawful? As an employer are you exposed by requiring employees to log-on at weekends, jump on calls during annual leave or work late into the night to get a deal across the line?

Working time in Ireland is heavily regulated and the health and safety of employees is paramount. Under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997 (the "Act") the responsibility rests with the employer to ensure employees are afforded sufficient time away from the office for rest and relaxation.

Key provisions

The Act provides:

  • All employees must be given:
    • a 15 minute rest break every 4.5 hours, or 30 minute break every 6 hours (to include the first 15 minutes);
    • 11 hours consecutive rest in every 24 hours; and
    • 24 hours consecutive rest every seven days, or two rest periods of 24 hours in each fortnight.
  • Employees cannot work more than an average of 48 hours per week (averaged over a 4 month period). For the most part this provision applies to all employees and, with very limited exceptions, cannot be contracted out of.
  • As a general rule, employees are entitled to four working weeks annual leave per annum.
  • Employees are entitled to nine public holidays per year. However, an employer is not obliged to give the employee a day off, but instead may offer either a paid day off within a month, an extra day's pay or an extra day's annual leave.
  • Employers are also required to record their employees’ working hours.

Where an employer is found to be in breach of the Act, it could be ordered to compensate the employee with up to two years’ gross remuneration.

Conclusion

Although there is nothing on the legislature’s to-do list that suggests an Irish version of “Right to Disconnect” will be introduced any time soon, current law requires employers to ensure workers take time away from the office for certain minimum periods, as outlined above. During these periods employees should not be required to work, answer emails or participate on business-related calls. To limit exposure, employers should be mindful that their current work practices and expectations are reasonable and lawful.