oss’ is not a bad word. Sometimes one even endearingly calls one’s superior ‘boss.’ But ‘bossism’ in the professional world more often than not becomes a dirty word. It implies an exercise of power by an individual authorised to supervise the work of subordinates to the point of bullying. A good boss is supposed to know the art of persuasion and how to get the best out of the staff without imposing authority too obtrusively. The bad boss is, of course, a bully who uses the tool of intimidation, injecting fear into the minds of his subordinates to force them to do a work the way he wants them to do. In that case work becomes a form of torture that often forces the worker to quit at the first opportunity. Bossism has acquired an even sinister connotation in the pandemic-ridden world where ‘work from home’ (WFH) has become the new normal with the internet playing a key role. Things have become so intolerable that Portugal has introduced, for the first time in the world, a legislation to rein in the boss who tries to regulate the private life of his subordinates by intruding into his or her home through the internet or mobile phones making them virtually bonded labourers.
When the pandemic hit the world nearly two years ago, employees all over the world welcomed work from home as a great relief since they do not have to be physically present in their offices nor commute between home and office, thereby endangering themselves while wasting a lot of time and money on the way, but could, instead, work in the comfort of their homes. They could enjoy the closeness of their family members even while working and have lunch and tea as the working hours became flexible. The employers also saw benefits in the new system as the establishment costs for operating offices teeming with employees got reduced in virtually empty office premises. The need for large real estate physical office space also became redundant.
But, soon the uncomfortable side of the new system began to manifest itself. Work from home is now being seen as a major health issue and source of mental stress. There have been complaints galore from employees that they are too much tied up with their work as their bosses can call them any time of the day, pester them with queries about the progress of their work and bully them for any delay on the plea that they have the luxury of not going to office and as such they need to cooperate with the management being at the beck and call of the boss any time of the day. In other words, what was thought to be a blessing in disguise has eventually turned out contrary, something worse than the pre-pandemic order when one could be answerable to the boss only during specified working hours. Now, for all practical purposes, there is no fixed work schedule.
Portugal is a small country, but it is showing to the world how best to tackle COVID-19 with record coverage of vaccination and also now handling the distress of employees who have been implementing the work from home pandemic time policy. Its parliament approved November 12 new labour laws on working from home providing additional protection for employees who do their job away from company premises. The new rules, as Portugal’s socialist government explains, are a response to the trend of more staff working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has conceded there are benefits in working from home, but wanted to adapt labour legislation to it. The regulations bring new penalties for companies that disturb the privacy of staff or their families and compel employers to compensate staff for work-related expenses incurred at home. Under the new legal regime, companies should avoid contacting workers outside office hours, except under exceptional circumstances. Moreover, at least every two months, staff should meet with their superiors to prevent worker isolation. Also, companies should pay workers for additional personal expenses incurred at home, such as electricity or internet bills.
There were some other proposals disproportionately in favour of the workers but those were shot down. For example, a measure was mooted that would have granted workers the right to turn off professional communication systems when off work. Companies not complying with the rules will be liable for fines. Justifying the new legislation, Ana Mendes Godinho, Portugal’s Minister of Labour and Social Security, said the pandemic has accelerated the need to regulate “what needs to be regulated.” The exercise may have been prompted by an electoral consideration as the legislation has been made by the parliament before it is dissolved ahead of a snap election in January. Workers’ rights are likely to be one of the major issues in the battle of ballots. But, it addresses a prickly issue that is fast snowballing into a major socio-economic-family crisis.
There is no gainsaying that work-life balance has gone for a toss due to the pandemic as employees have been working non-stop all over the world. Since operations have turned remote, people are confined to their homes all day to complete their work. To add to their misery, many are required to work extra hours. This has caused a lot of inconvenience and distress leading to mental and physical health issues at an alarming rate. As nations think of ways to decrease the extreme work pressure, the step taken by Portugal is a welcome development. It is a laudable attempt to ensure employees do not feel the workload to be too heavy by making it illegal for managers and bosses to contact their employees after working hours. India and other countries should take a cue from it and address the problem before it takes too heavy a toll on the lives of workers and their families.