How Startups Can Embrace The Right To Disconnect

Marco Houwen, pictured, is an advisor, serial entrepreneur and founder of leadership training organisation Zentrapreneur (Photo © Zentrapreneur)

In early June, Luxembourg enshrined the right to disconnect from work into law. While important, the law misses the mark for project-based work like that found in startups. 

Since 13 June, employers are expected to implement their own disconnection regime, making it clear what is and isn’t permitted in terms of using digital tools to contact staff outside of contracted work hours. 

“In the classical, 8-5 pm job, it is totally normal that you need to have the right to preserve your free time through the right to disconnect,” says Marco Houwen, founder of business coaching startup Zentrapreneur. “But, for an entrepreneur it’s very ambiguous.”

He says that the law focuses on the “old way of working and how we see an employer and employee,” and fails to address more flexible working patterns found in the kind of project-based work found within startups.

12-hour working days

Behind the hustle, fundraising announcements and product launches, the mental health of startup employees and founders is suffering. A 2022 Sifted survey showed that 87% of startup employees surveyed in Europe reported a negative impact on mental health, with 84% putting it down to burnout. Respondents reported having panic attacks as a result of 12-hour working days with no job security, while the lack of direction and high pressure of working in a startup resulted in a “complete breakdown”, according to one respondent. 

Burnout and breakdowns aside, the benefits of time spent away from work emails and updates include better quality sleep, leading to greater creativity, improved productivity and better work-life balance, all of which make an employer attractive as a place to work. 

“There still needs to be the right to not be available all the time for a crazy entrepreneur who wants his thing done tomorrow. But how do you enforce that?”

Marco Houwen

Common sense approach

“There still needs to be the right to not be available all the time for a crazy entrepreneur who wants his thing done tomorrow. But how do you enforce that?” asks Houwen, adding: “That’s the responsibility of all parties involved in the company.”

If an employee is working flexible hours, the employer risks breaching GDPR and data privacy rules if it monitors its employees’ hours (to check they’re taking sufficient breaks). What they can do is to help build healthy boundaries to avoid employee burnout and this means using common sense. 

“I often have an email spree at 9:30 pm because my brain gets a last boost before night time. That doesn’t mean that people have to react. But, should I write a note: ‘do not take action on this email’?” says Houwen. 

Leaders can also lead by example. The entrepreneur cited one startup founder who once a month will spend a few days living and working in Lisbon to reset. “That’s his way of finding alignment,” he says.

The real value of the startup

For the kinds of employers and founders who expect their staff to always be available, they need to understand that in order to be successful in the long-run, the team is more important than the product.

“Entrepreneurs who have not understood what the real value in the company is, which is their people, will have to ask themselves this question because now they will be legally exposed if they try to overstretch their team,” Houwen says.

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