The right to disconnect

Business 14th March 2022

One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses has been an increase in the practice of working from home. There are no signs that this increase is set to return to pre-pandemic levels when the number of employees in the UK working from home, at least for part of the working week, was around 6%. Now, it’s close to 30%.

This new reality has blurred the lines between home and office life like never before. A big question now concerns the moral and legal right of workers to disconnect from work emails. The calls for a right to disconnect are growing ever louder.

What is the Right to Disconnect law?

A right to disconnect gives employees the right to disconnect from work outside of their normal working hours. Once the working day is finished, they will either not receive emails or at least not be expected to answer them. The same goes for telephone calls or text messages.

The UK’s working time directive states that no employee can be forced to work more than, an average, 48 hours a week – across any 17-week period. This means that they should not be contacted outside of those hours or their agreed contracted working hours unless they are opted out of the directive.

The aim of the directive is to boost wellbeing without infringing on the rights of employees to work flexibly. Several prominent trade unions, such as Prospect, have been campaigning for the right to disconnect

Andrew Pakes, Prospect’s research director, says, “The right to disconnect is about creating a shared approach to work communications that supports flexible working but also allows people to switch off outside of core hours.”

Prospect is urging the government to make it an employer’s duty to agree plans on how to protect the boundaries between work and life.

Why do employees need a Right to Disconnect? 

The biggest factor is wellbeing. Even before the pandemic, there were fears of how technology was affecting employees’ working lives. In 2017, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development warned that around 30% of UK workers felt they couldn’t switch off in their personal time while working remotely.

The survey also found that 40% of workers admitted to actively checking their work phone or emails outside working hours at least five times a day. 20% expressed fears over surveillance of their work – making them feel anxious and causing loss of sleep.

Of course, since the pandemic, the problem has become exacerbated. The Office for National Statistics found that people who completed any work from home did six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week during 2020. This compared with just over three hours for those that never work from home.

True, digital technology undoubtedly supports flexible working, but it can also bring its own work pressures. How would we feel if our bosses were to hammer on our front doors on a Friday evening and then sit at our dining tables demanding answers about work while we eat? The idea is as ridiculous as it’s unreasonable. So why should we entertain the idea digitally?

Do employees in other countries have a Right to Disconnect?

The UK lags behind much of the rest of the world. Many countries have much stricter regulations. In Portugal, for example, it is illegal for bosses to text or email their employees outside of working hours. Companies with more than ten staff who ignore the rules could face fines of up to 10,000 euros. The EU is also close to introducing a right to disconnect throughout its membership.

Other countries have gone further. In France, for example, businesses with more than 50 employees are now legally obliged to create a charter of good conduct. This involves working with trade unions to decide the hours when staff are not expected to send or reply to emails.

There have been similar movements to introduce some form of a right to disconnect in Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium.

In some instances, companies have taken it upon themselves to introduce a right to disconnect. Examples include Volkswagen and Telefonica.

How might a Right to Disconnect work in the UK?

In the UK, unions are suggesting three approaches to instigate a right to disconnect.

1. An enterprise agreement

This would take place between an employer and a union to ensure employees can agree times in which they can and cannot be contacted.

2. A directive approach

A legal framework that enforces a right to disconnect.

3. A prescriptive approach

A legislative or statutory approach defining how a right to disconnect would look across different industries and sectors.

The Right to Disconnect – not without its challenges

Predictably, the right to disconnect is not without its challenges and its critics.

Difficulties arise with issues such as technical emergencies where the attention of an engineer might be urgently needed. Then there’s the definition of the term ‘contact’. Does the word cover phone calls, text messages or even letters?

The right to disconnect movement has been about protecting and fostering employees’ wellbeing. However, some employees find it hard to switch off after hours. Could new regulations backfire by making companies reluctant to allow working from home at all?

Here to help

Are you or your employees interested in finding out more about the right to disconnect?

As experts in HR practices and issues, we understand the importance of work/life balance and its impact on productivity. We also appreciate the value of happy, highly motivated staff – how they are critical to building a strong company ethos.

For straight-talking advice on all aspects of employment, call us – 01604 763494

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