Victoria Police introduced a ‘right to disconnect’ clause into its new enterprise agreement in an attempt to help employees to mentally detach from work and avoid ‘availability creep’.
You’re lying in bed at night and an email pings on your phone lighting up the room. It’s from your manager outlining some important feedback you need to incorporate into your presentation tomorrow morning. They don’t expect you to respond there and then, but it sparks your anxiety, so you pull yourself out of bed and start typing away on your laptop.
Or you might be having dinner with your family and your boss’s name appears on your phone. You answer, taking the call in another room. By the time you’ve come back, dinner is cold and your kids are firmly planted in front of the TV; family time is over.
Most of us are no stranger to the above examples, or a variation of them. We know overworking and unpaid overtime is a problem in Australia, but how many organisations are actually doing something about it?
As part of their new enterprise agreement, Victorian police officers have won what’s being touted as a “ground-breaking” and “landmark” ‘right to disconnect’ clause. It stipulates that managers and supervisors must “respect employees’ periods of leave and rest days” and that employees are not required to respond to calls or emails outside of work hours, unless under very specific circumstances.
It’s a move that many have been calling for across the Australian workforce for some time now and is reminiscent of the French ‘right to disconnect’ law – known as the El Khomri law– which was passed in 2017.
Many countries have since followed in France’s footsteps by legislating barriers between home and work, but formalised policies aren’t common in Australia. Could Victoria Police’s progressive clause be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?
(Don’t have time to read the whole story? We’ve shared some key dot points at the bottom of this article).
Clamping down on ‘availability creep’
This clause, and the similar legislation created across the pond, is designed to reduce what’s known as ‘availability creep’ – that is, employees not only responding to work requests out of hours, but feeling obligated to be available all the time. The byproduct of this can look like the incessant checking and refreshing of work emails, feeling guilty for coming home and switching off your devices, or simply not switching off and working later and later into the evening.
Victoria Police is making a concerted effort to address availability creep and encourage its people to “recharge and spend quality time away from work” says Belinda McPherson CPHR, director of the recruitment, deployment and workplace relations division at Victoria Police.
“The highest priority for Victoria Police is community safety, so it’s even more important that our people are able to disconnect and lead healthy lives outside of work. We need to foster a healthy environment with clear boundaries so our people can go home to their loved ones and be fully present. This brings better outcomes for everyone.”
While complete disconnection is the ultimate goal, we all know that circumstances arise that often need attention out of hours; this clause took this into consideration.
If a situation is deemed to be an emergency (for example, a traumatic incident such as a terrorist attack or a bushfire) or the individual’s welfare is in question, superiors are allowed to make contact after hours. Outside of this, an ‘availability allowance’ is required to be paid to employees who are contacted out of hours – $7.15 per hour on non-rest days and $14.33 per hour on rest days, as of 1 July 2021. Essentially, if a superior wants to call an employee for a non-emergency, such as swapping shifts or seeking information, they can, but the employee will be compensated for their time.
Prior to this agreement, a number of senior officers (superintendents, commanders and inspectors) received an annual contactability allowance (between approximately $6,000 or $11,000 per year, depending on their ranking).
“A range of designated roles have a disturbance, or availability allowance built in,” says McPherson. “This makes it clear that these roles are the point of contact. By enforcing the right to disconnect, managers can make informed choices as to who to contact outside of hours, or when matters arise. The rates were negotiated with the Police Association of Victoria through bargaining.”
“Leaders need to bring to life the concept that we are not always available, and that disconnecting is a strength and has a positive influence on culture.” – Belinda McPherson CPHR, Director Recruitment Deployment and Workplace Relations Division, Victoria Police
Turn back time
Remember back in the good old days when we weren’t attached to our workplaces with a digital leash? We didn’t have email apps. We didn’t carry our mobiles with us everywhere. We didn’t have an all-access pass into our colleagues’ private lives.
In its wrap-up of the Victoria Police story, the ABC interviewed veteran police officer Wayne Gatt, who was instrumental in securing the clause. Gatt described it as a welcome step into the past.
“When I joined Victoria Police we didn’t have a culture that meant you rang people 24/7,” he told the ABC. “We didn’t have [mobile] phones back then. We didn’t have the intrusive technology that we have today. We know we can do this.”
Not only do we know it’s possible to cut ties with work after hours, it’s becoming increasingly important that we do, especially for those working in psychologically demanding, hyper-vigilant professions like policing.
Dr Jo Lukins, a psychologist based in North Queensland, expects this new clause will have a positive impact on availability creep.
“For our fabulous first responders, medical professionals, defence personnel and others who are in high-pressure jobs, we need to allow them to recover and debrief from their daily work so they can continue to do their great work,” says Lukins.
This is even more important for shift workers, she adds, as this type of work already comes with an added layer of “physical and psychological stress”.
“Humans often struggle when life feels out of control and unpredictable and, of course, the day-to-day (or night-to-night) work of a police officer is likely to be constantly unpredictable.”
This clause is just one small way to offer these workers more certainty in their lives, and it has the potential to lead to great benefits. So will we see other organisations push for similar provisions? Many are already advocating for it, while others have signalled concerns that such a clause doesn’t align with the flexible work arrangements which many have grown to know and love over the last 12 months – but that’s a story for another time.
“Burnout and fatigue can impact safety, decision-making and your culture,” says McPerson. “It’s far better to maintain a sustainable balance so employees can be more present and focussed, whether operationally or outside of work.”
Lukins adds that “smart organisations” understand that giving employees adequate time to decompress and step away from work has positive knock on effects in terms of culture, productivity and employee engagement.
“We know there’s a saturation point for any worker when they stop being productive and efficient. Having employees ‘on tap’ is not good for employees or the organisation.
A significant consideration to this will be the nature of the work,” she says. “For example, if my role is pivotal to whether a [workplace] can keep operating, it may be necessary for my personal time to be interrupted. My assumption is that these expectations would be clearly articulated, communicated and compensated when they arise,” says Lukins.
Quashing the ‘always on’ culture
Even if widespread right to disconnect legislation could potentially be on the horizon for Australia, it’s still some time away. So what can we do in the interim to better respond to availability creep?
Leaders who overtly overwork their employees are a problem in and of themselves. However, it can be equally damaging when leaders set a tone of overworking without even realising.
Maybe they shoot off emails at all hours without taking into account how this information might be received by the recipient – could it flare up their anxiety? Could it lead them to have a troublesome sleep? Do they keep their email notifications on for fear of missing critical information?
Also, it’s not as simple as telling employees to turn off their phones or emails in the evening. These days, employees are increasingly using the same devices for both work and personal matters.
McPherson suggests leaders take the time to think about the expectations they’re setting with their actions.
“[At Victoria Police], managers are encouraged to include taglines on signature blocks, such as ‘I work flexibly. I’m sending you this message now because it’s a good time for me, but I do not expect you to read, respond or action it outside your regular hours.’
“We also encourage leaders to use ‘delay delivery’ [email scheduling] on emails when working out of hours. Essentially, availability creep can be negated through ongoing conversations, and keeping wellbeing and balance on the agenda. Leaders need to bring to life the concept that we are not always available, and that disconnecting is a strength and has a positive influence on culture.”
Lukins agrees that leaders who feel the need to work late need to be really careful about the unintentional expectations they might be setting – even if employees don’t see an email until the next morning, if they notice it was sent at 2am, that might cause them to believe those kind of hours are expected in order to rise in the ranks.
She also says employees need to be diligent about setting their own boundaries.
“Be mindful that we teach people how to treat us. So if you respond to emails/calls when it’s not urgent, you are teaching others how to treat you.
“I have noticed an increase in push back from employees about the intrusion of work into family life since COVID-19. I wonder if that will return to pre-pandemic status or whether there has been a permanent shift in expectations by employees. I guess time will tell.”
- Victoria Police has introduced a clause which states managers and supervisors can only contact employees out of hours during emergencies or if employees receive compensation for their time.
- This compensation is referred to as ‘availability allowance’ and is $7.15 per hour on non-rest days and $14.33 per hour on rest days, as of 1 July 2021.
- Many groups are calling for widespread adoption of the right to disconnect processes, while others are flagging that it may not align with a modern, flexible workplace.
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