NewsTeacher's Desk

The right to disconnect laws: what it will mean for teachers

Incredible as it seems, Australians are depending on legislation to enforce their right to electronically disconnect outside of work hours. How did we get to this point?

In February, the Federal Government found the cross-bench support it required to make a new industrial relations law: the right to disconnect.

The right to disconnect is a part of the federal Labor government’s “Closing Loopholes” changes to industrial relations and comes into effect on 26 August 2024.

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In short, this gives workers protection if they choose not to respond to unreasonable attempts by their employers to contact them outside of work hours.

In other words, there is now a law protecting you if you choose not to respond to a phone call, email, or message from your employer at 10 pm or over the weekend.

A lot hinges on the interpretation of ‘reasonable’. The lawmakers acknowledge it is often reasonable for employers to contact their workers out of hours. For teachers, a phone call at 9 pm warning of the cancellation of the next day’s excursion is reasonable. An email demanding an immediate update about the status of report writing is not.

During the parliamentary inquiry that led to the recommendation for the legislation, teachers and police were specifically mentioned as groups that needed the protection of the new Right to Disconnect laws.

But not all school groups are in favour of the changes, with the Association of Independent Schools (AIS) seeking limits to the new laws.

The Independent Education Union, which represents more than 32,000 teachers and staff in independent schools has rejected this. “Teachers and school staff are already carrying heavy workloads and they need the same right to disconnect as other working people,” said NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Carol Matthews.

“Of course, we recognise that overnight excursions and camps, Saturday sport and boarding house supervision are an essential part of life in many independent schools, and staff need to be available for these times and activities,” Matthews said. “But teachers and school staff also have the right to downtime and are still entitled to the legislated right to disconnect when they are not performing an allocated or rostered duty. School staff should not be required to be on call at 8 pm on a weeknight if a parent or student wishes to contact them.” 

How did it come to this?

A number of factors have led to the development of the 24/7 society, always ‘on’ and always connected.

From an increase in shift work to the demand for flexible work hours, expansion of retail and hospitality hours, the rise of social media, technological advances that mean we can carry a computer in our pockets wherever we travel, keeping us connected and traceable, to a new generation of consumers that expect instant access and convenience. The combination of these has led to a 24/7 global society where the prospect of constant availability is becoming the norm.

The COVID pandemic and working from home further blurred the boundaries and reinforced the new expectations.

“We have only seen the widespread adoption of smart phones in the past 20 years and prior to this it was much more difficult and uncommon for employees to be contacted at all hours of the day,” stated Queensland and Northern Territory (IEU-QNT) Branch Secretary Terry Burke. “With the growth of mobile technology and assumed 24/7 connectivity, critical workload and work intensification issues have only been exacerbated [and] employer requests, parental queries and student contact regularly encroach on the personal time of staff.”

“While there is still much to be done to address workload pressures in schools, a ‘right to disconnect’ will provide overworked school staff a right to refuse to monitor, read or respond to employer or work-related contact after hours or on weekends. Teachers cannot be permanently ‘on call’, particularly when our sector is facing an attrition crisis.” Terry Burke

 How to maintain boundaries

Although the new laws will not become effective until late August, there is no time like the present to start disconnecting. Although the notion of work-life ‘balance’ may be long gone, we should now be considering work-life ‘boundaries’.

These will be different for everyone and will change as work and personal circumstances change, but it is up to the individual to determine where those limits are and then communicate them to their employer.

Use technology to help establish boundaries by disabling notifications, removing work-related emails from your phone, and using ‘focus’ apps. If you do need to work at home, establish a dedicated workspace and avoid the temptation to check emails or write lesson plans while on the couch in front of the TV. Part-time workers should include this information on their email signatures, along with the particular weekdays people might reasonably expect a response.

More information about The Right to Disconnect is available on the Fair Work Ombudsman website here: Right to disconnect – Fair Work Ombudsman

Related story: Why Educators Should Be Good Digital Role Models

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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