Under the code launched by Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, employees will be entitled not to have to “routinely” perform work outside their normal working hours – and cannot be penalised if they refuse to respond immediately in such circumstances.

It includes a duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect, by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours.

Speaking to RTÉ News, Mr Varadkar said the new Code of Practice recognised that in a world where everyone had a smartphone and a computer at home, the workplace had changed.

He said that people were being required more and more almost to put in extra hours for free from their own bedroom or house, and that he wanted to change that.

He described it as a big step towards ensuring that people were not expected to work extra hours without remuneration or protection.

Formulated by the Workplace Relations Commission, it aims to help employees “who feel obligated to routinely work longer hours than those agreed in their terms and conditions of employment”.

There is no formal right to disconnect in Irish or European law.

While failure to follow the code is not an offence in itself, in any proceedings before a Court, the Labour Court or the WRC, it shall be admissible in evidence “and any provision of the Code which appears to the Court, body or officer concerned to be relevant to any question arising in the proceedings shall be taken into account in determining that question.

“The Code of Practice comes into effect immediately and applies to all types of employment, whether you are working remotely or not,” the Tánaiste confirmed.

“It will help employees, no matter what their job is, to strike a better work-life balance and switch off from work outside of their normal working hours.”

However, he acknowledged that flexibility would be required to accommodate employees in global business.

“Because the Code is flexible, employees will have more options to work outside of traditional hours, which many people have availed of during the pandemic. And it reflects the fact that many Irish employees are part of a global network, requiring contact with colleagues around the world,” he said.

If issues arise, complaints can be taken to the Workplace Relations Commission.

WRC Director General Liam Kelly stressed that disconnecting from work and work-related devices required a joint approach from employers and employees.

“While placing the onus of management of working time on the employer is appropriate, individual responsibility on the part of employees is also required,” he noted.

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English said the right to disconnect had never been more important following the “seismic” shift in work practices over the last year.

“It will ensure that both employers and employees are aware of their requirements and entitlements and understand how they apply, especially when it is time to unplug and recharge the batteries by switching off properly from work, especially in a remote working scenario,” he commented.

A spokesperson for the Tánaiste has rejected criticisms of the new Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect by an employment lawyer, who argued it could contradict existing legislation and dilute employee rights.

Speaking on Newstalk earlier, Richard Grogan of Richard Grogan and Associates cited Section 5 of the Organisation of Working Time Act which provides that an employee can only be contacted outside their standard hours in an emergency situation.

However, he notes that the Code of Practice refers to “occasional or legitimate situations or for business or operational reasons”.

A spokesperson for the Tánaiste stressed that there had been no changes to existing legislation and that the Code of Practice had been put in place to help employees better understand their right.

Separately, the Tánaiste has launched a consultation process on his plans to legislate for the right to request remote working. Submissions must be received by 7 May.

Rise in ‘always on’ culture over last decade

The Financial Service Union’s Head of Industrial Relations and Campaigns has welcomed the new Code of Practice that gives employees enhanced rights to disconnect from work outside normal working hours.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Gareth Murphy said there has been a rise in the “always on” working culture over the last ten years or so. This has resulted in an “unformally extended” working week, he said, often in an unpaid way.

It has also led to a rise in work-related stress, he said.

The move has also been welcomed by Ibec, which represents Irish businesses.

Ibec’s Director of Employer Relations Maeve McElwee said it is “positive” to see the code focusing on best practice “rather than layering on further legislation in circumstances where the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, already provides a very effective and defined entitlement to disconnect”.

Labour’s spokesperson on employment affairs, Senator Marie Sherlock, said the party is glad the issue is “finally getting the attention it deserves”, but they would “have to question the benefit of a code of conduct”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Ms Sherlock said there are two issues at play – culture and exploitation.

With regards to culture, she said a code of practice “will get that conversation going” but ultimately leadership within companies is needed to ensure workers do switch off.

“It’s not acceptable for senior managers to be forcing their workers to be replying – on a routine basis – to emails at all hours of the day and night, and at weekends,” Ms Sherlock said.

With regards to exploitation, she said it is “exceptionally difficult” to be able to prosecute a case for an abuse of an employee, in terms of forcing them to work outside their contracted hours.

“That’s why we believe legislation is the only tool to protect workers”, Ms Sherlock said, adding that the code of conduct is a “blunt instrument”.