Will the ‘Right to Disconnect’ Free or Fail Women in the Workplace?

Will the ‘Right to Disconnect’ Free or Fail Women in the Workplace?

When the news broke that the Senate had passed the ‘right to disconnect’ bill there was an instant buzz of interest, excitement even, among the many women in my personal and professional circles. Finally, it seems real action is being taken to protect our mental and physical wellbeing through a legislated boundary between work and home life.

The ‘right to disconnect‘ bill will give Australian workers the choice to refuse unreasonable contact with their employer outside of their working hours. This means you shouldn’t be penalised by your boss or manager for not answering intrusive calls or messages when you’re off the clock.

On the surface, the bill sounds like a progressive cure-all for burnout and the gnawing guilt that comes from prioritising work over family time – or vice versa. For women who often disproportionately shoulder childcare and domestic responsibilities, this could be a game changer.

Dig a little deeper though and there is some concern that the bill has the potential to unwind much of the hard-earned gender equity gained over the last two decades, if women don’t clearly advocate for themselves and reinforce their relationships with management.

WHY WE NEED PERMISSION TO DISCONNECT

At its heart, the ‘right to disconnect’ bill is something many workers, but especially women, are in desperate need of.

We might not like to admit it, but many women are people pleasers who avoid ruffling feathers and can’t stand the thought of letting anyone down. This can lead us to take on too many responsibilities, and struggle to set effective boundaries.

Our research at Women Rising found that being a people pleaser is the second largest factor derailing women’s career progression, and that one of the key roadblocks is an inability to say ‘no’ or set boundaries with management or colleagues.

Of the 1,200 women surveyed, 42 per cent shared that they struggled with setting boundaries, and almost a third (31 per cent) stated that the greatest contributor to their stress levels at work was balancing parenting and their job.

It’s clear from these statistics that many women need more support with saying ‘no’ and setting firm limits with their boss.

IS THIS THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF FLEXIBLE WORK?

The key issue with the ‘right to disconnect’ bill is that it is a one size fits all approach. While it may suit some workers to have a hard stop at the end of each day, for others it could derail their ability to contribute to the workforce at all.

Statistically, women are more likely to engage in flexible work arrangements. According to the Diversity Council Australia, our national gender flex gap sits at 15 per cent. In 2023, 72 per cent of women reported using one or more forms of flexible work options, including hybrid work and job share, compared to 57 per cent of men reporting use of flexible work options in the same period.

Workplaces could choose to revoke flexible options to see all colleagues engaging in work at the same time, or out of fear that they might be penalised by the new laws for emails or calls exchanged outside of regular hours.

It’s also important to consider the potential negative impact the laws may have on women’s career progression.

Although the law might state that companies cannot directly penalise workers for legally disconnecting from work when done for the day, managers may still prefer team members who are more visible and available.

HOW WOMEN CAN USE THE ‘RIGHT TO DISCONNECT’ TO THEIR ADVANTAGE

According to The Voice of Women at Work 2023, 84 per cent of women agree that support from their manager is essential for them to thrive at work.

The introduction of this bill will make it even more essential for women to reset their relationship with their manager, clarify priorities, and have clear communication about progress made and support required.

Setting clear boundaries and cultivating a positive relationship with the boss is a powerful way for women to have more agency in their careers, protecting what they’ve declared is most important to them.

This is also the ideal time for women to seek out a sponsor, a senior leader at work who can advocate for them to their boss, no matter their working hours. A sponsor can provide valuable guidance and support as women navigate their careers.

Dealing with a manager who constantly ignores your boundaries can be challenging. However, rather than slipping into conflict avoidant or people-pleasing behaviours, it’s crucial that women advocate for themselves and establish healthy working relationships.

Women can do this by requesting one-on-ones with their manager to discuss their personal and professional goals and needs. It’s also important to give and reciprocate support to colleagues who are facing similar work/life challenges so management can see the issues at scale.

In these discussions, it’s important to not just say “no”. Propose alternative solutions like delegating tasks, adjusting deadlines, or seeking additional support. This shows your willingness to find a mutually beneficial compromise.

TIME FOR MANAGERS TO STEP UP

Ultimately, legislation that in theory allows women to reclaim their personal time and reduce the stress and burnout associated with feeling constantly “on call” is inherently positive.

A great outcome from this legislation would be that managers become more mindful of the requests they are making of their employees. Ensuring manageable workloads and supporting people’s wellbeing and ability to get the job done without becoming disengaged or overwhelmed is what every employer should be striving for.

 

As published in Women’s Agenda, 22 February, 2024

Read more about Megan’s thoughts on the Right To Disconnect and her tips for setting boundaries from her Marie Claire interview, 9 February, 2024

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