Banning work contact outside of business hours viable solution?

by Sophie Schroder01 Oct 2014
German labour minister Andrea Nahles has just commissioned a comprehensive study that aims to establish a definition of work-related stress and calculate the economic cost it brings - research many feel could open the door to an “anti-stress” act.
Part of this act, which has already been drafted by the German metalworkers’ union, would include a demand that workers be protected from being "permanently reachable by modern means of communication" such as email or mobile phones, as reported in The Guardian.
And Germany isn’t the only country looking to make the move: In fact, earlier this year France brought in rules to protect employees from work disturbing them outside of office hours.
The deal says that employees will have to switch off work phones and avoid looking at work email, while businesses are not allowed to pressure staff to check messages.
In other parts of Europe; Belgium and the Netherlands have both now explicitly listed burnout as one of the health risks from which employers are required to protect their workers.
And in a discussion about demanding jobs, it can’t be denied that lawyers would be right up there.
No strangers to the 80-hour week, studies have revealed that lawyers are among the most likely to experience symptoms of depression than their other professional counterparts.
But is the solution as simple as creating laws to inhibit the obligation to work outside of business hours?  
NZ Lawyer posed that question to a number of firms in order to ascertain whether such a move would help or hinder the profession Down Under.
Jo Copeland, the human resources director at Simpson Grierson says although there is no doubt that stress, depression and burnout are prevalent among legal professionals, she doesn’t think that a 5pm closing time on emails and phone calls is the answer.
“These days, people are asking for way more flexibility so they can work whenever and wherever they want to.  They want to be able to fit work around their own schedules.  In fact, a recent study I read said that 36% of people would trade more flexibility for a pay rise so I guess that tells you the world is changing,” she says. 
“There is a sense of freedom in being able to answer an email from anywhere.  It's about allowing people to live their lives and earn a living at the same time.”
Minter Ellison Rudd Watts employment law partner Aaron Lloyd agrees that flexibility is the key, especially among legal professionals.
The issue is particularly poignant to him as he commutes between Nelson and Auckland, and is increasingly doing a lot of work in Australia.
There has been a major trend towards employees demanding more flexibility in terms of work hours, working from home and general work mobility, and if employers are expected to accommodate that then many could see it as unhelpful if employees are encouraged not to be flexible in return, Lloyd says.
“A second observation I would make is that it does depend on the seniority of the employee as to whether this is significant or not. Senior employees, particularly those wanting to progress in a business, will not be likely to rest on their rights and not take after hour calls or the like,” he says.
“The reality is that those who are willing to go the extra mile will be seen to be more committed to the business, more suited to senior roles and responsibility, and that will therefore create a natural willingness to continue to work outside standard hours.” 
However, Lloyd adds that such a law could provide a measure of protection for bigger work force groups.
But for him personally, it wouldn’t and couldn’t change the way he operates.
As a business owner rather than an employee the mind-set is completely different, he says, and the reality is the nature of his work means clients seek him out in emergencies.
If Lloyd couldn’t respond, they would look elsewhere for advice.
“It is one thing to have your clients trust you and your advice, but if you are not available when they need you, then that is not of much assistance to them,” he says. “Our staff feel the same way – one of the things I think makes my staff the best in the world is that they genuinely care about our clients and their business – what that means is that we want to assist them to get things done, to make their business flourish, and that often means going the extra mile to assist, whenever they need it.” 
Across the ditch some of our Australian counterparts feel the same way – although they all agree that working outside of business hours doesn’t automatically mean working unreasonable hours.
Marcus McCarthy, the principal of dispersed law firm Nexus Law Group, thinks modern forms of communication – particularly mobile phones and emails – are contributing to work related stress and resulting in longer work days than ever before.
“The connected world is meaning we are getting less time out and holidays are often compromised by work related calls and emails.”
But McCarthy also acknowledges the huge advantages of connectivity, and says the answer to the problem lies in personal balance and personal discipline, rather than more legislation.
“Of course workers should never be obliged to answer emails and calls outside work hours and if they were to be disciplined for not doing so, that action would be invalid and unreasonable,” he says. “I do not believe a specific law is required, although the sentiment behind the German law is laudable.”
Warren Kalinko, CEO at innovative firm Keypoint Law, says such legislation wouldn’t work for lawyers.
He says he’s got a more effective way to deal with work balance issues: “Do away with billable hour targets”.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.


  • by Grant Diggle 2/10/2014 8:53:39 a.m.

    Although an accountant rather than a lawyer in both professions there has been a creeping increase for especially junior employees to do far more hours than they are paid for. Subtle and not so subtle threats such as future partnership opportunities have been used. The bottom line is that humans have a basic right to have time off. Sadly senior partners citing "that's how it was in my day" have taken that right away with sometimes lethal consequences. It is ironic that whilst some lawyers work in the health and safety field health and safety are ignored when it comes to legal employees. Time for the profession to wake up and get a life and allow employees to claim back their lives.