From the 1st of April this year, a new Code of Practice was introduced in Ireland called the ‘Right to Disconnect’ which was launched by Tánaiste (deputy head of government) and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar. The Right to Disconnect gives employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal working hours, including the right to not respond immediately to emails, telephone calls, or other messages[i].
This Code of Practice is aimed to enhance a work/life balance but is also part of a larger package of measures that the government has identified that are currently transforming work/life practices in Ireland and elsewhere. New laws are planned to facilitate working from home where possible, working more flexible hours and other blueprints ‘to transform rural Ireland by facilitating people to work more remotely and flexibly’[ii].
By these measures, the government is regularising what many people have been doing informally for some time. Restricted to a 5km limit from home until very recently, individuals have increasingly carved out spaces in their day for work-time, family-time, cooking-time, exercise-time, and limited socialising-time. One activity that combines a unique response to the pressures and opportunities of lockdown is sea swimming.
In a previous blog, I wrote about the dramatic rise of sea swimmers that have flocked to Dublin shores during the past year, to the degree in fact, that it has featured in the international press like the Guardian[iii] and the Washington Post[iv] and national satirical sketches. Within a couple of months of the first lockdown, numerous WhatsApp groups sprung up where people arranged to meet friends along the Dublin coast. The groups swelled along popular swimming spots, and numbers were such that Dublin City Council have posted signs asking people to ‘swim and go’, fearful that too much socialising will follow the hobby.
What seems striking to me is that, unlike established sea swimmers that have been regulars at these spots for many years, these new groups seem to be largely – although not exclusively of course – composed of middle-aged women. In fact, the objection to the arrival of middle-age, middle-class, often female swimmers became evident in the running jokes about these newbies muscling in on more established middle-aged, middle-class, often male swimmers, bringing their expensive changing robes with them. A south Dublin swimming area received media widespread attention with its anonymous sign ‘no Dryrobes, no Dryrobe types’.
Work/life balance is, of course, something of a fallacy, implying that ‘work’ is something distinct and separable from ‘life’, which flexible working hours can adequately address. The fallacy of the ‘domestic sphere’ as a discrete entity has never been more apparent during the pandemic as people have learned that their homes are not separate from their working lives, but the control-tower for diverse cross-cutting responsibilities that are increasingly difficult to disentangle[v]. In a recent study, women have been shown to be disproportionately affected by these changes. A recent Deloitte survey, which explored the pandemic’s impact on the work/life balance and well-being of working women across 9 countries, shows that 65% of women report that they now carry more responsibility for household chores, while nearly 70% of women who have experienced these disruptions are concerned their career growth may be limited.[vi]
Some of the avid Dublin sea swimmers report something similar. The middle-aged women featured in the Washington Post article talk of the ‘joy’ swimming creates, the sociality that they find there, but also how swimming alleviates anxiety. Others have mentioned to me the stress of living and working in the same space where demands of family members and colleagues are constant and in stereo. For some I have spoken to, they mention the subtle shift in household spaces where partners have slowly monopolised the attics, spare bedrooms and garden rooms for work purposes while their wives are in more public spaces such as kitchen tables or children’s bedrooms. For others, again, sea swimming is a direct response to the incessant Zoom meetings and the strain occasioned by long hours online – as one woman said to me: ‘I swim to feel my own body’.
There are several strands to this issue but the flexibility offered by this new Code of Practice, while welcome, does little to clarify what precisely people want to disconnect from.
Swim and Go sign at a Dublin swimming shelter.
Garvey, Pauline. 2018. Unpacking Ikea: Swedish Design for the Purchasing Masses. Routledge.
Gordon, Yvonne. 25/03/21 During Dublin’s lockdown, swimmers find joy — and some rivalry — in the chilly bay, The Washington Post, available online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2021/03/25/dublin-bay-forty-foot-swimming/
O’Carroll, Rory. 25/11/20. Shivering Dublin bay swimmers slighted for their ‘fancy fleeces’, available online https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/25/shivering-dublin-bay-swimmers-slighted-for-fancy-robe
[i] There are three rights enshrined in the Code which comes into effect including the right not to have to routinely perform work outside their normal working hours; the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (for example: by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours).
[v] See Garvey 2018: 130-147