Although she once hoped to be a professional chef, Delphine ultimately opted to be a public employee.
But she still loves having time to cook: “It’s one of my passions!” she says.
The 36-year-old is preparing dinner for her friends, Catherine and Roch. She is Hachis Parmentier, a dish of minced meat and mashed potatoes, which is sometimes compared to a meatloaf.
As he stirs the onions, he tells me that he appreciates the fact that many officials in Belgium have the right to go offline .
“Especially for young people, it’s not always clear when they should be available or not.”
“Because when you start a new job, you want to be perfect and you think, ‘If I don’t answer that email by 10 p.m. maybe my boss won’t like it.'”
“So now I think it’s going to be a cultural change.”
As of February 1, 65,000 Belgian government employees cannot be contacted outside normal business hours.
There are exceptions, which can be by agreement or if something cannot wait. And it doesn’t mean there won’t be staff on duty.
A second principle is that workers should not be disadvantaged by not answering the phone or not receiving emails after hours.
For now only for officials
Public Administration Minister Petra De Sutter believes the change will boost efficiency.
He says the line between work and personal life has become increasingly blurred during the pandemic, with so many working from home.
Without the right to unplug, he says, “the result will be stress and exhaustion, and this is the real disease of today.”
This rule change was relatively simple to implement, as it only applies to federal civil servants.
The plan to extend the practice to the private sector is expected to meet further resistance.
“The right to disconnect should not be extended to the private sector,” says Eric Laureys of Voka, the Flemish Business Network.
He claims it will ” destroy” the progress seen during the pandemic towards more flexible working.
“It would be a huge sign of mistrust of employers’ ability to organize work.”
Len Shackleton, a research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank and professor of economics at the University of Buckingham, agrees that it undermines flexibility.
“Restrictions on contacting workers outside of fixed hours are just one more dose of regulation.”
Petra De Sutter insists the measure will not block flexible working, when that is what employees want.
“But on the other hand, we need to protect the basic rights of workers,” he says.
Delphine laughs a bit when I ask if the change might feed the notion of civil servants “watching the clock.”
He states that it is an old cliché and that the workload has increased over the years.
“I think we do more with fewer people, generally. I don’t think it’s because we don’t like to work.”
Other countries have introduced this type of provision, such as France.
In Belgium, it seems likely that the next stage of the debate will be whether a higher proportion of workers should also get the right to go offline.