As I mentioned in my recent blog, Working from home can take a toll on employee mental health and wellbeing. The so called ‘dark side’of remote working’ has created a reaction. As a result many employees and Trade Unions are asking for a legal ‘right to disconnect’ to improve employee mental health and wellbeing.
A ‘right to disconnect’ would give employees the fundamental right to disengage from work-related communications outside of their regular office hours, and would require companies to negotiate and agree upon rules with staff around when they can be contacted for work purposes. French employees have had the “right to disconnect” since 1 January 2017. Unlike France, Germany does not have any statutory “right to disconnect”. However, other Health and Safety and Employment laws help achieve this. The right to disconnect came into force on 1st April this year in the Republic of Ireland. The ‘right to disconnect’ was enshrined into Ireland’s employment Code of Practice, and applies to all workers regardless of whether they work remotely or in an office. Italy, Spain and Belgium have also introduced regulations giving employees the ‘right to disconnect’.
The ‘right to disconnect’ is gaining international momentum. The European Parliament is supporting proposals around a ‘right to disconnect’, with MEPs in January voting in favour of introducing new legislation across the 27-member bloc. The Canadian government recently established a Right To Disconnect Advisory Committee, comprising business leaders and unions, to set out new rules that would help employees disengage from work outside of their working hours. In Australia and New Zealand the right to disconnect is gaining momentum.
Polling carried out by Opinium on behalf of professionals’ union Prospect found that:
- Two-thirds (66%) of employees want to see a right-to-disconnect policy in the upcoming 2021 UK Employment Bill, which is expected to include a number of employment reforms influenced by the impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s work economy. These include plans to make flexible working a default option for all advertised jobs, which would give employees greater freedom around how they split their time between the office and home.
- Support for a right to disengage policy was strong across all age groups in the UK as well as with voters from all political parties, with 65% of Labour and 53% of Conservative-voting workers supporting the idea, compared to just 22% opposed. Overall, 59% of workers supported the idea, with 17% opposed.
- Remote working during the pandemic has taken a toll on many employees and 35% of remote workers felt their mental health at work had suffered during the pandemic, with 42% saying this was at least partly a result of their inability to switch off from their professional responsibilities at the end of the day.
- Overall, 32% of remote workers said they were finding it hard to fully switch off from work. The poll also found that 30% of remote workers are working more unpaid hours than before the pandemic, with nearly one in five (18%) working at least four additional unpaid hours per week.
Giving UK employees the ‘right to disconnect’ is gaining momentum. Ministers are being urged to tackle the “dark side” of remote working by giving employees a legal “right to disconnect” to improve their mental health.
Prospect said its figures revealed “the dark side of remote working”, and called on ministers to make legislative changes that would better equip workers for the widespread continuation of working from home after the pandemic. They have written to UK Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, urging him to include the right to disconnect in advance of an Employment Bill, which is expected to be included in the Queen’s Speech in May.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary for Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC), called for ‘right to disconnect’ policies to be introduced in the UK. She said: “We all need a good work-life balance with some proper downtime. But today’s technology can easily blur the line between work and home, with no let-up from work stresses…”
What does this mean for UK employers? I think that UK employee’s will get the ‘right to disconnect’. I think this will come in one or a combination of 3 ways:
- Direct legislation: Given that the Government is “… committed to delivering the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation, including introducing more measures to support people in balancing work with their personal lives, and encouraging flexible working.” It would not be a major surprise to see a statutory ‘right to disconnect’ in the upcoming Employment Bill.
- The effect of Existing Legislation: Employers have a legal duty to assess the risks to the health and safety of their employees. Given the blurring of boundaries caused by remote and blended working and the myriad of e-communication channels; proactive steps may need to be taken to eliminate the risk of work related stress. Measures taken to eliminate these risks to mental wellbeing will require steps to re-set the work life balance, and are likely to include protocols for when employees can ‘disconnect’.
- Good Business Practice: A substantial body of research shows that, assisted by new technology, the inability to escape from work can have a damaging impact on people’s health. For example, a Bupa survey in 2017 revealed that more than half of workers were kept awake at night because of occupational stress. Likewise, the Australian government has discovered a direct link between increased working hours and poor mental health: levels of anxiety or depression increase proportionately with the number of hours worked.
It is my view that the positive benefits of a ‘right to disconnect’ are self-evident. Allowing employees the ‘right to disconnect’ will help to improve employees’ mental health, and according to research, improve productivity. At a personal level, it will allow more time for parents to spend with their children and other family members, and for every employee to enjoy a healthier work life balance.
There are some simple steps employers can take to create a system that ensures the ‘right to disconnect’ is understood by all in the business:
- Add a working time policy to your employee handbook, which clearly and simply outlines the rules and protocols regarding the employees’ ‘right to disconnect’.
- Clearly communicated the policy and the protocols to employees.
- While certain jobs such as retail or manufacturing are much easier to monitor with, for instance clock-in and clock-out systems, it’s more difficult for office workers and mobile workers , particularly if they occasionally/regularly work from home. I suggest that employers put in place an electronic system where employees can regulate themselves by signing in when they’re working and signing out when they’re finished which can be monitored periodically, to ensure employees aren’t exceeding their work hours.
- A simple way to implement boundaries is permitting employees to have email footers outlining core working hours and advising that emails will not be responded to outside of those core hours.
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