The Right to Disconnect

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

It cannot be denied that the pandemic has changed the face of working in the UK, creating a new attitude from employers towards flexible working. However, if increased flexibility has been the perk, the downside is that it is now harder than ever to disconnect from work. The line between work and home has become increasingly blurred; easily done when your work laptop is sat on the dining room table or in the spare bedroom. The Office for National Statistics found that 35.9% of the UK’s employed population did some form of work from home in 2020, and whilst this group saves time on commuting, they also did an average of six hours unpaid overtime each week.

So what is the best way forward to establishing clear boundaries, and can it even be achieved? Trade union Prospect have been campaigning for more flexible working for years, and are now looking to help workers re-establish boundaries between work and home life. Their goal is to boost employee wellbeing, without impacting the rights of employees to work flexibly. Andrew Pakes, Prospect 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.” The technology we now have at our disposable supports flexible and remote working, making it a possibility for many. However the ability to get in touch with co-workers so easily can sometimes overstep the line, and put pressure on employees to be available at all hours.

Even prior to the pandemic this was a problem. In 2017 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development conducted a study and found almost a third of UK workers felt they could not switch off in their personal time while working remotely. Mr Parkes continues, “Trade unions like Prospect have long championed flexible working, but it isn’t flexible if there is a digital leash pulling us into a constant state of work. Prospect wants the government to lead the way on this making it a duty for employers and workers to agree plans on how to protect the boundaries between work and life.”

The first kind of right to disconnect legislation that appeared was in France in 2016, with Italy following suit in 2017 and Spain in 2018. Although they differ in detail, broadly these rules protect an employees right not to respond to the communications from work outside the businesses core hours, and that they can not be reprimanded because of this. Germany have also made movements in this direction, not through law but with negotiations between company stakeholders. Reportedly at Volkswagen non management employees cannot access their email on their smart phones between 18.15 and 07.00. In 2021, Ireland employed a code of practice. Irish workers have the right not the routinely perform work out of hours, cannot be admonished for not working outside of hours, and there is a duty to respect others right to disconnect. Importantly, this code applies to both remote workers and in office employees. It also suggests training for managers, so they can identify and take action when a worker seems unable to disconnect. Irish employees can take action against their employer at the Labour Court or Workplace Relations Commission if they feel they have been discriminated against for refusing to attend work outside normal working hours.

However there are arguments to say that creating an across the board mandate for the right to disconnect is impractical. For this to be employed there needs to be an established pattern of “normal” working hours, but with flexible and remote working, it is difficult to get a clear definition of “regular” hours. The upside of flexible work is the option to go and pick the kids up from school, and make up that time in the evening, for example. Eileen Schofield, a UK employee rights lawyer says “The challenge with applying a right to disconnect (in any country) just now is that employees are becoming accustomed to choosing different working hours every day,” she says. “The right to disconnect is likely to mean that this total flexibility will not be completely viable.”

Len Shackleton, a Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham, believes that even if right-to-disconnect laws could accommodate the way employees wish to work now, there would be undesirable side effects to this. If workers are restricted from connecting at certain times, then “employers are going to want to be sure you’re available and fully occupied during your contracted hours. Much of the flexibility of working at home, which has allowed you to nip out to the supermarket or to pick up the kids and make the time up later, will disappear. Employers will want to know why you haven’t answered that phone call or email (during your ‘on’ hours).”

Do you find it difficult to disconnect from work, or is this not a problem you have faced? Perhaps your company has established an understanding that works for all employees! Tweet us with your thoughts by click the button below or using our Twitter handle @PlusOne_Jobs.