Portugal bans bosses texting after work: will the UK follow suit?

Portugal recently passed legislation making it illegal for bosses to text their employees after work. Business Leader were interested to learn what this might mean and whether the UK could follow suit, so we sought out some expert advice on the subject.

What will be the effect of Portugal banning bosses from texting employees after work?

Under the new laws banning bosses from texting their employees, employers will now face sanctions for texting, phoning, or emailing a worker if the worker is off the clock.

With the ability to work remotely blurring the lines between home and work, and making it difficult for some people to switch off, many will feel this legislation will help create a better work-life balance for Portugal’s workers. But how will this work in practice?

Dr Kathy Hartley, expert in People Management from the University of Salford Business School, believes it might lead to a rethink in what is considered normal working hours.

She comments: “I suspect that this will give a nudge to employers to consider how and when they communicate with employees, and what constitutes ‘outside normal hours’. Ultimately though, it has to be about culture change in organisations, as the actual enforcement of such legislation is complex and requires investment.”

This is an important point. With working patterns varying hugely between different professions, home, hybrid and remote workers, what constitutes ‘normal’ working hours for one employer may be completely different to another.

However, Marc Fullman, Doctoral Researcher at the University of Sussex Business School, says the new legislation has been introduced on a one-size-fits-all basis.

He comments: “The new Portuguese legislation appears to come from the right place. By restricting contact with employees outside of working hours, issues of blurred boundaries between work and home and excessive hours can be minimised.

“However, as with similar legislation and company policies, the new ruling appears to work on a one-size-fits-all basis. In other words, all employees are impacted by it regardless of their own individual needs and preferences. It assumes that employees work set hours (e.g., 9-5) and therefore would not want to be contacted after 5pm.

“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, but particularly during and after it, remote workers may have caring responsibilities that make working traditional hours difficult (e.g., the school run, hospital appointments). Therefore, they adopt irregular working hours to accommodate those responsibilities, such as logging on in the evening after children have gone to bed.

“If most members of a team or department work in this style, not being able to contact each other ‘out of hours’ will be problematic.

“Employees might need to access work at irregular hours for other reasons, such as having multiple jobs with split hours. Or it could be that employees working for global organisations need to work at varying times of the day and night.

“Individual preferences also need to be considered. For example, if someone is worried about a particular work project, they may find it beneficial to be able to check and work on email in the evenings and at weekends. Not being able to do that could increase their stress levels, leading to a negative impact on their well-being.

“By implementing this legislation, the option is removed for organisations to work with employees to establish policies that are inclusive and consider differing individual needs and preferences.

“It potentially reduces levels of individual employee autonomy, which research has shown can be detrimental to job satisfaction and well-being.

“If the needs of the types of employees previously mentioned are not taken into account, it could also lead to a less inclusive and diverse workforce.”

This raises important questions as to what this legislation means for those working irregular hours and, perhaps, further legislation will follow to ensure their needs are addressed. After all, supporting the emotional wellbeing of remote workers is important, whether they are working regular hours or not.

Is this the beginning of further legislation to meet home and hybrid working arrangements?

With home and hybrid working arrangements becoming more normalised, it will be interesting to see whether the move by Portugal will lead to further legislation in the country or elsewhere.

Dr Hartley believes it could, but legislation is not the only answer to meeting home and hybrid working arrangements. She says: “Other countries, in Europe and beyond, have introduced laws and codes of practices over the last few years relating to this issue. We may see further legislation, but even in countries known for strong employment legislation, who have particular laws in this area, it doesn’t spell out precisely how this is enacted.

“So, legislation won’t necessary provide all the answers, given the multitude of different types of work and the fact that many employees desire to retain some flexibility over when they work.”

Will the UK follow in Portugal’s footsteps?

With the pandemic thrusting mental wellbeing into the spotlight, some will feel that it’s only a matter of time before there will be calls for a similar piece of legislation to be introduced in the UK.

However, Dr Kathy Hartley doesn’t think the UK will follow Portugal’s lead. She said: “I think it’s unlikely the UK will follow with legislation, certainly in the current climate. We have a history of favouring a ‘lighter touch’ in relation to such issues, i.e. having guidelines and encouraging employers to behave differently.

“Actually, some of the legislation that exists in other countries is seen as having a ‘light touch’. Ireland introduced a code of practice earlier this year, designed to enable employees to disengage from work, but also provide flexibility for work that crosses time zones etc. It will be interesting to see what happens in response to that.”

It’s also important to recognise that Portuguese workers work longer on average than we do here in the UK. According to the most recent data from the OECD, which is from 2019, Portuguese workers work 1,719 hours per year on average, whilst UK workers work 1,538 – almost 200 hours less per year. Therefore, you could argue the country has a greater need for legislation that has the potential to limit work hours.

Of course, this doesn’t mean similar legislation would be unwelcome here in the UK, especially with so many UK workers struggling to separate their home and working lives since the rise of remote working.