Portugal has announced new law changes prohibiting bosses from contacting remote workers after hours in an effort to promote work-life balance in this post-pandemic world. But how realistic is it?

It’s 7.30pm. You were supposed to finish work two hours ago, but after three reminders your client came back to you at 5.25pm with one amendment.

You’ve fixed it now and have sent it off to your boss for the final seal.

After a 12-hour day at work, you’re too exhausted to even doom scroll before sleeping, when ‘ding’. A new email from the boss. With a sigh you’re back out of bed adjusting to the harsh blue light of your laptop.

Covid-19 thrust workplaces across the globe into working remotely last year and many have continued to operate this way. 

While studies have heralded flexible working for improving productivity, other research has shown a darker side of remote working increasing the average hours of work.

A survey of 1000 workers by Frog Recruitment found nearly half (46 percent) reported working more hours than prior to Covid and of those, two-thirds said they weren’t being paid for those extra hours.

The ‘game changer’

But this month, in a bid to improve work-life balance for remote workers, Portugal banned employers from texting employees after work hours.

Changes to their labour laws mean companies with more than 10 employees could face fines for contacting workers outside of office hours.

Companies also have to help pay expenses incurred by remote working like higher electricity and internet bills and are also expected to organise face-to-face meetings at least every two months to tackle loneliness.

The raft of changes have been designed to make the country more attractive to “digital nomads”, with Portugal’s Minister of Labour and Social Security, Ana Mendes Godinho calling reforms a “game changer”, AP reported.

But how realistic is this really? And is it even helpful?

One of New Zealand’s largest companies, Spark, says a blanket ban on calling your employee isn’t realistic for the 24/7 telecommunications company.

“A one size fits all approach to flexibility does not allow people to thrive based on their own individual needs.”
– Heather Polglase, Spark

Spark HR director Heather Polglase says the purpose of flexibility is to improve each individual worker’s own work-life balance.

“Flexibility looks different for different people. We wouldn’t advocate for a ban on phone calls after a certain time. That’s partly because as a 24/7 business managing critical connectivity, products and services for our customers, we have teams working around the clock,” Polgase says.

In addition to this, she says, flexibility might actually involve working after hours for some employees who want to stop work to care for children from 4pm to 7pm and then work for a few hours in the evening. 

“A one size fits all approach to flexibility does not allow people to thrive based on their own individual needs.”

Polgase says flexible working arrangements must deliver a win for the individual, their team and their customers.

But within the company, different teams have the autonomy to come up with flexible practices that work for them.

Some have adopted arrangements that enable staff to start or finish at different times, work an extra hour a day Monday to Thursday to take Friday afternoon off, or work from different locations and take additional leave if required.

The country’s biggest bank and another large employer, ANZ, has a similar approach.

ANZ talent and culture general manager Michelle Russell says since the pandemic began, more employees are working from home.

Before Covid, about 12 percent of its workforce of about 8000 wanted to work one to two days in the office and the rest at home, but since March last year, more than half prefer working from home most days, she says.

“Work hours may end up meaning different things for different people. Some people may end up working some hours during the day and some in the evening. We think the key is respecting each person’s hours,” Russell says.

Even our Government doesn’t have a rigid flexibility policy for public sector workers.

A spokesman for Te Kawa Mataaho (the Public Service Commission) says it has no such policy because it serves ministers and the public.

“That means from time to time individual public servants, depending on their role, may need to be available or may need to work after hours or on weekends.”

According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, intruding into private time, like when a worker is at home or on leave, is not usually reasonable, but can be in emergencies.

But it, too, doesn’t have a specific policy in place in relation to flexible working etiquette, also treating it on a case by case basis.

Setting boundaries

Health psychologist Tiare Tolks says from a health and safety standpoint, Portugal’s law change is the “gold standard” that could bring about systemic change to the new world of remote work.

Tolks, who consults organisations on workplace wellbeing, says it’s time that policies within organisations reflect the world we live in now.

“If I was asked, should we mandate it or not? On balance, I’d probably say there’s probably more people who’d benefit from it and that you could have exceptions to the rule,” Tolks says.

“Organisations really need to be thinking preventatively, not trying to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. They need to create workplaces where people can thrive and prosper, and setting boundaries is a big one.”

Insurer Southern Cross’ latest workplace wellbeing survey of 116 firms representing some 95,488 employees (4.8 percent of the nation’s workforce) finds 91 percent of respondents say stress levels among employees increased during 2020 because of the pandemic. 

“Work activity is at an accelerated pace and we simply don’t have enough time to let our stress response recover.”
– Tiare Tolks, health psychologist

Increased workload is the biggest cause of work-related stress and anxiety reported by businesses of all sizes, followed by long hours.

Tolks says our nervous systems were not designed for working long intense hours.

“If you think back to cave days, you would either be out fighting predators, searching for food, or sitting around the cave, relaxing and connecting with your peers. That was when your nervous system was actually recalibrating and resetting. Our nervous system is actually still wired for that, but with the modern lifestyle that we’re living, it means that we’re constantly feeling like there’s a predator coming.

“Work activity is at an accelerated pace and we simply don’t have enough time to let our stress response recover.”

People management platform Employment Hero’s chief people officer Alex Hattingh says as we move toward “work-life integration” as opposed to work-life balance, respecting boundaries and workers’ downtime is vital to their wellbeing and for preventing burnout or fatigue.

The United States is currently dealing with millions of Americans leaving the workforce because of their working conditions.

Hattingh says a practical tool managers can use to ensure they’re not encroaching on their employees’ lives is scheduling messages for a specific time. 

She says there needs to be a clear understanding around an employee’s working day, when they are available and when they’re not. 

“This will save all parties a lot of time and angst and avoid awkward or unpleasant conversations that come about when everyone isn’t on the same page.

“While it may look like overkill if you check, even double check, that everyone is aware of your availabilities, tasks and deadlines, it will be immensely helpful in the long run. This will especially be important as we continue to work remotely and asynchronously.”

Leave a comment