Could the UK follow the French and introduce a right to disconnect?

right-to-disconnect
The 'right to disconnect' is part of a set of new labour laws introduced by French labour minister Myriam El Khomri
Revelli-Beaumont/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

French workers can now negotiate with their employer on limiting their access to emails and other work activity outside of office hours. Could we see similar legislation appear in the UK, asks Jane Fielding? 

The burning issue of maintaining a healthy work-life balance remains firmly on the agenda, with the French Government introducing a new law seeking to address the “always on” culture.

From 1 January 2017, French employers with 50 or more employees must open a negotiation with staff to try to agree parameters for being online for work out of hours.

The idea is to reduce the impact of work-related emails and messaging activity on evenings, weekends and days off. Defined limits for truly switching off, it’s thought, should result in workers being less likely to suffer from work-related stress, reducing potential burnout and impact on family life.

The “always on” attitude has become part of Western working culture, potentially exacerbated in recent years by the financial downturn. An increased focus on competitiveness has led to increased pressure on staff, who feel they have to be seen to be delivering at all times.

The extent to which this approach should be curbed, rather than accepted as a workplace norm, has been on the agenda for some time in many countries. Discussing the potential for introducing legislation in this area last year, Myriam El Khomri, the French minister of labour, noted “the boundary between professional and personal life has become tenuous”.

Union negotiation

Back in 2014, the French IT federation, Syntec, which looks after the interests of French companies in the IT sector, took steps to try to re-establish that boundary more clearly for its sector.

Syntec renegotiated its working time agreement to include a right for staff to disconnect from electronic tools such as mobile phones and email outside working hours.

At the time, this led to some misunderstanding in the UK media, some of whom reported that it would no longer be possible to receive or send work-related emails in France after 8pm. That was not the case and, of course, it only related to one industry sector. The new law brings some welcome clarity.

The French legislation recognises the need for flexibility not just between different sectors but also within sectors, so businesses are allowed to create a viable system that works for their specific organisation.

The fact that they are required to try to agree the ground rules with their staff aims to encourage buy-in from staff and should make whatever is agreed more workable in practice.

There is no obligation to reach an agreement but if none is reached, the employer is not off the hook. The onus remains on them to introduce measures to help staff achieve a healthy work-life balance.

What about in the UK?

In the UK, apart from Working Time Regulations and general health and safety obligations, we have no specific laws addressing the issue of electronic access out of hours.

It is more a question of individual employers adopting internal measures to promote wellbeing among staff, recognising that, apart from their general health and safety/working time obligations, this is likely to be better for recruitment, retention and productivity.

For example, some employers will have policies limiting the number of internal emails they can send on a given day. This encourages people not to overload each other with unnecessary (sometimes back-covering) emails and to talk to each other instead to get things done. It also frees them up to focus on more productive activities rather than operate as inbox managers.

These are less ambitious measures than the approach reportedly adopted by the German automotive firm Daimler, which allowed staff to opt to have any new emails that arrived while they were on holiday deleted on their return.

However, there are important cultural differences between the UK and France, which mean that specific legislation akin to the new French law is unlikely to find Parliamentary time here.

Contrasting cultures

First, the workplace in the UK, with some notable exceptions, has more of an individualistic culture, closer to the US model, than the French one, where workplace issues are more likely to be dealt with collectively.

A general law requiring employers to do this would cut across that more individual approach.

Second, we see from the approach to data protection, for example, that for historic reasons, France has typically been more sensitive about encroaching on employees’ data privacy.

This latest law is a further example of the French Government being more willing to step in to safeguard people’s private lives by setting stricter parameters for working and personal life.

Third, in the UK, there has been a growing awareness of the impact of a 24/7 culture on people’s health (mental and physical) and on productivity.

This has led to an increased focus on measures to address mental health and encourage better work-life balance, which in some quarters are beginning to bear fruit.

The latter are likely to have more lasting impact than the Working Time Regulations, which does stipulate that a 48-hour week should not be exceeded (averaged over 17 weeks) but in reality many employees have no real choice but to opt out from that limit and do the hours needed to get the job done.

So while the recent French law is understandable, we are unlikely to see an equivalent soon in the UK.

However, even without it, given the imperative to improve British productivity, employers will want to continue to work within the constraints of current legislation and best practice to strike the right balance between the welfare needs of their staff and the organisation’s specific business requirements.

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