To reply or not to reply to calls during off-work hours—Part 1: The “right to disconnect” for the sake of well-being

Have you ever heard of the “right to disconnect”?

This concept was incorporated into French labor legislation in 2016, a decision that garnered much attention. With the development of information technology, it has become easier than ever to contact people regardless of time and place, creating the need to design a systematic approach to using time.

How is this “right to disconnect” related to improving well-being? And how should it be realized?

This article—The “right to disconnect” for the sake of well-being—is the first part of a two-part series.

What is the “right to disconnect”?

The right to disconnect is defined by Yamamoto, Uchida, and Orsini (2020, p.117) as “the right of workers to refuse to respond to work e-mails and phone calls outside of working hours.”

The need for the right to disconnect and how to protect it have been the subject of much discussion in the EU, particularly in France and Germany. Amid the increase in remote work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the boundaries separating work and personal time have become blurred, and more organizations have become aware of the right to disconnect.

The need for the right to disconnect

First of all, how do people feel about being contacted outside of working hours? According to the “Survey on New Coronavirus Disease and Work-Style Reform”1 conducted by NTT DATA Institute of Management Consulting, 18.4 percent of respondents said they would be willing to respond to non-urgent phone calls and e-mails (including messages on the LINE mobile messenger app, etc.) outside of working hours. 46.7 percent of respondents, however, said they would prefer not to, but would have no choice but to respond. Furthermore, 14.8 percent said they would not want to respond and wouldn’t even if contacted, and 7.1 percent said they would avoid receiving calls in the first place (by disconnecting their devices or turning off notifications, etc.).

In other words, a little less than a quarter of the respondents said they would not respond if contacted, and just under half said they would respond, but would prefer not to. Consequently, approximately 70 percent of those surveyed answered negatively with regard to responding to calls outside of work hours.

So, why do those who answered this way not want to respond to after-hours calls? The reason may be because they want to achieve a balance between their working and personal lives, or a healthy lifestyle, by not connecting with their boss or office colleagues.

Securing time away from work from the end of the workday to the start of the next day’s work is called an “interwork interval.” For example, if you frequently respond to work calls at home after working hours, your personal time between your scheduled working hours will be shortened.

Research has been conducted on the effects of such shortened intervals on the body and the mind.

According to Kubo, Izawa, Tsuchiya, Ikeda, Miki, and Takahashi (2018, pp.398–400), with an interwork interval of 11 hours, sleep time is around five hours. Also, compared with longer work intervals, an 11-hour interwork interval tends to result in more fatigue carried over to the following day and less psychological detachment.*

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan’s “Worker’s Fatigue and Interwork Intervals,”2 the concept of psychological detachment asserts that “in order to recover from work-related stress and fatigue, it is important to not only physically leave work (the workplace) after finishing work, but also to psychologically leave it.”

This isn’t to say, however, that everyone dislikes being contacted outside of work hours. According to Derks, Bakker, Peters & Wingerden (2016), for those who prefer the integration of their work and non-work (family) domains, using their smartphones for work-related matters during non-working hours can reduce the likelihood of work-family conflicts. This approach allows them to be more flexible with both work and family, making it easier for them to realize their preferred lifestyle.

Based on the results of the NTT DATA Institute of Management Consulting survey and Kubo et al.’s research, we can conclude that the percentage of people whose well-being benefits from not being connected outside of work hours is generally higher. But the study by Derks et al. suggests that some people are able to seek well-being through staying connected outside of work hours.

The right to disconnect and D&I

These survey and research findings suggest that there is no uniformity in work and lifestyle preferences, and that they vary from person to person. While some people seem to want to live a healthier life with the right to disconnect, others appear to find it easier to live without it.

Evidently, there are diverse preferences regarding how to be connected outside of working hours, which could be viewed as one of the themes of diversity and inclusion (D&I). Accordingly, whether you are for or against the right to disconnect, you must first realize that there may be people who think differently from you.

The right to disconnect concept, which was imported from overseas, is generally translated into Japanese as “the right not to connect.” This, however, does not simply convey the very strong meaning of “the right to block, or cut off, communication,” but rather, for the majority of people who respond to calls outside of working hours but would prefer not to, might be best interpreted as meaning “the right to choose not to be connected.”

Within the framework of the “3 Key Elements + Breathing Space for Collective Well-being” concept introduced by our research institute,3 the issue of calls outside of working hours is related to “time” (understanding and consideration for other rhythms) and “breathing space” (planned rest).

In order for organizations and the individuals who belong to them to achieve well-being in ways that are suitable for each of them, why not discuss the matter with your team and colleagues from this perspective?

Works cited:

Derks, Bakker, Peters & Wingerden (2016). Work-related smartphone use, work–family conflict and family role performance: The role of segmentation preference. Human Relations 69 (5), pp. 1,045–1,068.

Kubo, Izawa, Tsuchiya, Ikeda, Miki and Takahashi (2018). Day-to-day variations in daily rest periods between working days and recovery from fatigue among information technology workers: One-month observational study using a fatigue app. Journal of Occupational Health 60 (5), pp, 394–403.

Yasushi Yamamoto, Toru Uchida, Philippe Orsini (2020). “Future Work Style Reform and Labor Issues in Health Management: Focusing on the ‘Right to Disconnect’,” Bulletin of the Faculty of Management Information, Niigata University of International Information Studies (3), pp. 117–128.

1: NTT DATA Institute of Management Consulting, Inc. (2021). “Survey on New Coronavirus Disease and Work-Style Reform”, p. 22  (in Japanese, referenced on December 17, 2021)
2: National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan (2021). “Worker’s Fatigue and Interwork Intervals” (in Japanese, referenced on December 17, 2021)
3: Rakuten People & Culture Lab. “Toward the New Normal: Thinking about Collective Well-being” (in Japanese)

Reference links:
Rakuten People & Culture Lab. “Thinking about collective well-being in the New Normal era — Company edition”
Rakuten People & Culture Lab. “Thinking about collective well-being in the New Normal era — Individual edition”