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Portugal appreciates the need for rest, and so should we

By Niamh Flanagan

Portugal introduces a law that bans employers from contacting employees after working hours – should Scotland do the same?

At the start of the month, news broke that Portugal had passed laws banning bosses from contacting their staff outside of working hours under legislation referred to as “right to rest”. The law dictates that companies with a staff force consisting of more than 10 employees cannot legally contact staff outside working hours. The legislation also concerns the rights of parents to work from home, stating that staff with children should be permitted to work from home indefinitely until their child reaches the age of eight – this is something that will not be subject to the approval of their boss. In addition to this, the law aims to respond to pandemic specific issues by taking measures to tackle isolation caused by working from home, requiring companies to hold regular face to face meetings, as well as potentially calling upon companies to contribute to increased living costs associated with working from home such as energy and internet bills. 

The legislation is an obvious product of the impact that the pandemic has had on working culture, and a further indication that a post Covid-19 world is going to look very different to our previous normality, in regards to more than just the healthcare implications. Portugal’s minister for labour and social security, Ana Mendes Gondinho cited a desire to attract “digital nomads” and “remote workers” to Portugal as a pioneer in a revolutionised mode of working. Indeed, the Portuguese island of Madeira has set up a “digital nomad village” and the nation has implemented a temporary resident visa scheme designed to attract entrepreneurs and freelancers. Evidently, Portugal is striving toward a reformed system of working that prioritises individual autonomy and makes a clear distinction between home and work life, with the “right to rest” legislation as only the tip of the figurative iceberg. The question is, should the rest of the world be striving for this too? 

“The legislation is an obvious product of the impact that the pandemic has had on working culture, and a further indication that a post Covid-19 world is going to look very different to our previous normality…”

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised several questions around the way that we mediate between our work and home lives. The removal of the literal, physical barrier of the workplace to make the clear distinction between spheres of work and domestic life during lockdown raised questions over the extent to which the two should converge. Studies indicate that working from home increased pressures upon individuals to feel as though they must prove themselves by working extra hours to combat anxiety or guilt generated by working remotely. Why have we as a society normalised the notion that in order to be deemed professionally valuable, we must make ourselves accessible to our employers round the clock? The boundary is so far blurred that our employer not being able to physically witness our undertaking of labour generates feelings of anxiety and guilt, leading us to willingly permit the imposition of employers onto non-paid hours of the day. 

A recent study emerging from Iceland in which a four-day working week was trialed has been considered a resounding success, with productivity unaffected by reduced working hours, and participants reporting increased quality of life, reduced stress, and less at risk of experiencing burnout. Surely this is indicative that the moves taken by Portugal to further safeguard the work-life balance of its population are both logical and productive steps in the right direction. Society is increasingly coming to grips with the idea that working, and especially “workaholic” culture is toxic; particularly amongst the younger generation there seems to be an emerging attitude that there is far more to life than working, as well as an increased intolerance for employers who do not respect the rights and wellbeing of their workers. This is well exemplified by our very own – in recent months students at the University of Glasgow have taken to the anonymous Facebook submissions page, GlasKnow, to create a community-generated list of exploitative employers to avoid. This is reflective of a level of community consciousness and solidarity amongst the student population when it comes to holding employers to account. 

“Society is increasingly coming to grips with the idea that working, and especially “workaholic” culture is toxic…”

There is an argument to suggest that the legislation is potentially overreaching in its capacity.  With such a stringent ban on out of hours contact, has Portugal made working life harder by curtailing a more conversational or friendly office culture and discouraging employers from interacting with their employees on a personal level? Additionally, such a ban potentially puts an end to the practice of picking up shifts at the last minute, a convenient way for students and young people working zero hour contracts to earn more money on their terms. 

Ultimately, however, these apparent causes for concern hold little weight. More often than not, bosses weaponise an artificial familiarity or friendliness to impose on employers and guilt trip or pressure them into accepting extra shifts or workloads – this is not a practice we need to mourn the restriction of. Furthermore, the enforcement of such legislation rests on the desire of an employee to report contact they do not welcome, and therefore reasonable, mutually consensual communication that does not cross a boundary will not be penalised. As such, the legislation will simply exist at the discretion of employees as a means by which exploited workers can shine a spotlight on and hold unethical employers accountable. Who could argue with that? 


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