If a ‘right to disconnect’ is introduced for UK workers, employers should have to demonstrate they have a good reason for ‘opting out’ of the requirement, a report has proposed.
The report by future of work think-tank Autonomy says that a “right to disconnect” in the UK should function as an “opt-out legal requirement” across all firms and sectors.
However, it should be “dynamic” to allow certain employers that need staff to work unsociable hours – such as those in the care sector – to opt out, but organisations will need to demonstrate clearly why they need to contact workers outside of their contracted hours.
It says unpaid overtime is a growing problem in the UK, with the ability to send and receive messages 24-hours a day making it diffcult for workers to disconnect, enjoy leisure time and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
“Being ‘switched back on’ by an employer after the working day has finished differs from standard overtime, whereby a worker is usually required to ‘stay on’. Instead, a call from an employer – and the response it requires – expands the working day fragment by fragment, meaning the worker is never quite ‘off’,” the report says.
Right to disconnect
The pandemic has worsened the situation, it claims. By April 2020, a third of all those in employment who had not been furloughed were working more hours than usual.
The report says that a right to disconnect “could be introduced very quickly and easily” and would only require two amendments to the Employment Rights Act 1996. However, it says that the outcome is “likely to be similar to existing exemptions from working time rules”.
Enforcement is likely to be difficult in the UK, it says. “Unlike most EU countries, it has no formal system of labour inspection (with some small exceptions, such as the Gangmasters Licensing Authority).
“Each claim brought by a worker, and each employer’s attempt to claim an exemption, would have to be considered individually as each worker takes a case to the tribunal.
“This is clearly unsatisfactory, and poses a serious question about whether the right to disconnect is workable under current circumstances. While the creation of a new right would be a step forward, it is doubtful that real progress can be made without a much stronger trade union movement, or an effective system of governmental labour inspection, monitoring and enforcement.”
The report recognises that several countries have explored whether employees should be given the right to disconnect from work. Ireland is considering legislation what would allow workers to not answer emails or messages outside of office hours, while employers in France are required to establish mechanisms for regulating the use of digital tools or draw up “charters” that define how they will respect workers’ right to disconnect.
A survey by the Prospect union earlier this year found two-thirds of remote workers wanted to see a new right to disconnect enshrined in law.
With many people continuing to work remotely or in hybrid environments, Jamie McKenzie, director at Sodexo Engage, warned that the start and end of the working day is less defined which meant employees were clocking in early and clocking out late.
“Employers must remind their staff of the importance of taking breaks and establishing boundaries, otherwise burnout is inevitable. It’s a common misconception that squeezing more hours into each day can produce great results, but in fact such overworking only hinders productivity,” he said.
“Employers have a duty of care to adhere to, and they must make efforts to reign in this culture of overworking. Some simple steps can be made like setting limits on when meetings can happen ensuring people don’t feel obliged to stay online late, or a rule of no emails after 6pm. It’s also important for leaders to set an example and respect employee’s personal time. These small changes can make a difference to work-life balance and ultimately an employee’s wellbeing.”
Employers should be introducing technology that helps staff “thrive” and involving them in the decision-making process, said Nicky Hoyland, CEO of HR tech company Huler.
“They need to seek to understand the everyday experience of staff members and the changing needs they have that need to be met in order for them to stay engaged and properly fulfil their role. This will ensure employees are able to disconnect from work and a positive effect on their wellbeing and productivity,” said Hoyland.