In the year 2021, Portugal introduced a new law which penalized bosses for calling or texting their subordinates after work hours. The country was waking up to the new realities that the Coronavirus pandemic had brought in for its remotely operating workforce. The law was introduced to address the mental health issues of the employees that had arisen as a result of blurring boundaries between the personal and professional spheres of their lives. The Portugal News stated that by introducing this law, the government was promoting employees’ “right to rest”.
In India also, as the Coronavirus pandemic raged on, workplaces shifted to people’s private spaces such as bedrooms and living rooms. The presence of a robust IT infrastructure enabled software companies to create virtual meeting spaces and collaborative work platforms that could be accessed from remote locations using the internet. However, remote working raised serious ethical questions and had implications for the work-life balance of the employees as they were seen working for longer hours than they used to, in their physical offices. Government departments were quick to emulate the remote work culture and employees were seen engrossed in online meetings or compiling information late in the evenings, hours after their supposed work timings.
Even as the offices have opened after over 2 years of the pandemic, the remote work culture has continued and employees are found working from their homes after returning from their offices. This is having serious implications for their family and social lives, restricting their outdoor activity, and adding to their work-related stress. Home has conventionally been an abode of solace away from the pressures of office-life where the employees would spend time with their family, relax and recuperate before starting off again the following morning.
However, there is very little space left for rejuvenation as work-pressures continue to loom over their minds even at home. Employees are unable to enjoy family life due to constant stress of meeting deadlines, sharing information, uploading data and submitting reports. According to a study conducted in 2020 across 10 countries and published in , telecommuting can lead to anxiety, depression, pain, strain and stress. This can be further exacerbated as a result of social isolation of the employees.
The importance of free time away from work cannot be emphasized enough. It not only helps to recover one’s mind and body from work-related stress but also provides opportunities for deep reflection, introspection and self-education. All these form essential ingredients for an enlightened and innovative population. This is important in the context of today’s dynamic economy which runs on the fuel of ideas, knowledge and creativity. These can only be cultivated when the mind is at rest and detached from the daily worries of work.
A window of rest and leisure is therefore not just necessary for the well-rounded growth and development of an individual’s personality but also for the progress of the society at large. Without exposing our minds to rich and stimulating literature, fascinating works of art or simple conversations with learned peers, we will be reduced to a dull, mechanical army of automatons which has limited prospects of contributing to explosive progress of the society through path-breaking ideas. Prolonged working hours can also have serious implications for those sectors of the economy that rely on recreation and socialisation, such as restaurants and cafes, hotels and tourism, gymnasiums and amusement parks, as their potential customers with healthy buying power remain locked indoors.
The United Nations in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights under unambiguously states that, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” Even in India, the judiciary has time and again made references to rest and leisure in the light of the Fundamental Right to Life (Article 21). For instance, the Madhya Pradesh High Court in the held that, “no one has a right to affect the rights of others to have proper sleep, peaceful living atmosphere and undisturbed thought”. Similarly, under the landmark Vishakha guidelines (specifically for women at workplaces), the honourable Supreme Court directed employers that “Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health and hygiene…”
Due to the rising remote-work culture, employees feel chained to their jobs even after they have left their offices and are sitting in the comfort of their homes. It is not uncommon to hear employees remark about the troubles that 24-hour connectivity through mobile and internet has brought into their lives. Sadly, they often express nostalgia for the pre-internet times when they would be liberated from work as soon as they left their offices.
We are living in times when statistics on economic development such as GDP growth are given precedence over well-being and quality of life. This carries grave risks for employees’ rights and is reminiscent of the years of industrial revolution in Europe that were characterized by back-breaking work hours and limited opportunities for rest and recuperation. As our economy evolves, the changing patterns of work and lifestyle necessitates the beginning of a fresh discourse and mobilization of public opinion to preserve a healthy work-life balance in the society. This must culminate in the emergence of tangible outcomes such as policy, legislations, rules, regulations and guidelines, across the country. There is now an urgent need to revisit our work practices, set clear boundaries for working hours, prevent the breach of employees’ personal space, and to promote a healthy work-life balance.
(The author is an Academician and Columnist. His areas of focus are Economics, Geopolitics, Energy, National Security and Diplomacy. Feedback: email@example.com)