Proposal for new laws to stop work calling you after hours in South Africa

 ·14 Oct 2022

Stellenbosch University’s legal expert Karin Calitz says that legislation changes or a national code of practice need to be put in place in South Africa to allow workers to ‘disconnect’ from work, as burnout amongst employees has become a growing concern.

Burnout is not a new phenomenon and can be described as a particular type of work-related stress resulting in a state of physical or emotional exhaustion – often caused by being overworked.

Experts attribute the resurgence of burnout to the Covid-19 pandemic, which shifted the working environment from the office to the home.

This shift meant that work and personal boundaries became blurred, creating an environment where employees were reachable 24/7 – doing more than they ordinarily would compared to being in the office, which is regulated by office hours.

There are no labour laws in South Africa that are targeted explicitly at long hours, overwork and tight deadlines – and Calitz believes this is negatively affecting employees’ health and productivity.

According to Calitz, the International Labour Organisation conducted a study during the pandemic in 2020 and found that Covid-19 exacerbated burnout, especially for employees that had children.

She added that surveys in the UK showed that 40% of employees suffered from burnout over the same period. A two-year follow-up report showed that these numbers are not declining.

“Burnout is taking on epidemic proportions globally, and South Africa is no exception,” she said.

Calitz said that South Africa should adopt legislation that allows employees to disconnect from work communications after office hours – prescribed in their contracts – and bar employers from sending out those communications.

If not legislation, then South Africa should put in place a national “code of good practice”, she said. This would require employers to sit down with their employees or respective unions to determine a suitable code that the employer will contractually abide by to avoid penalties.

She added that South Africa would not be the first country to make such a move and that countries such as France, Italy, Germany, and other European countries have adopted ‘Right to Disconnect’ legislation.

France was the first European country to introduce the Right to Disconnect legislation in 2016, which refers to a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours.

This legislation is now regulated by Article L.2242-17 of the Labour Code in France, and any company that infringes upon it could face fines of up to €4,080 (R72,175).

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