The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that, for many people, the boundary between work and home life has become blurred. A vast amount of people were suddenly required to work from home which meant for many, homes became offices and this has resulted in many struggling to disconnect from work outside of their working hours.
Even as we move beyond the pandemic, it seems likely that home working will now be a part of the ‘new normal’ and with many businesses taking steps to transition to a new hybrid way of working, these issues are unlikely to disappear. With this in mind, as employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of employees, they should be taking care to consider how employees can be supported with their ‘right to disconnect’.
What is the right to disconnect?
The ‘right to disconnect’ would ensure all employees have a right to not have to work outside their normal agreed hours and not have to engage in any work-related communications including emails, telephone calls, instant messaging etc.
Other countries have taken different approaches on how to implement the right to disconnect and for some, action had been taken long before the pandemic began. For example, France, Italy and Spain have all introduced legislation which grants workers the right to not have to respond to work-related communications outside their working hours and protects them from being penalised for this. Ireland have approached the issue by introducing a legislative code focusing on three key rights:
- Workers are entitled to not perform work or attend work matters outside their normal working hours;
- Workers have a right not to suffer a detriment to refuse to work outside their normal working hours; and
- Both workers and employers have a duty to respect their colleagues right to disconnect which includes not responding to emails when they aren’t working.
However, it is appreciated that it is difficult to introduce legislation which provides clear rules to protect employees but also allows for flexibility for businesses with hybrid workers.
How can employers support an employee’s right to disconnect?
The UK government are yet to announce whether they intend to introduce any laws or regulations which focus on the ‘right to disconnect’. However, this right could be of benefit to both employees and businesses as establishing an effective work-life balance is crucial in avoiding burn-out and maximising productivity during working hours.
There is however a balance that needs to be found as it may be detrimental to be too prescriptive with any new rules aimed to support the ‘right to disconnect’ (such as a ban on working outside of working hours) as this runs the risk of removing the positive aspect of remote working which allows for more flexibility.
Employers may consider the following potential action in the meantime:
- Communicate clearly with employees on what is required from them during this ‘new normal’;
- Offer mental health awareness training in the workplace which may need to be adapted for varying levels of seniority;
- Encourage employees to use their annual leave. Employers should also ensure that there is a system in place for adequate handover and cover when employees are on annual leave to reduce the need to contact them or for them to feel as though they need to work when they are on leave;
- Highlight and promote the importance of taking breaks and not working outside of working hours including checking emails to help employees find a clear divide between their work and their personal lives. This could also include encouraging employees to communicate whether urgent responses are needed to assist with prioritising workloads;
- Arrange for managers to check in with employees regularly to establish work capacity and investigate if they find that an employee has an excessive workload;
- Monitor out of hours communications and if there are any concerns, employers should raise this sensitively and have an open conversation to check in with the employee on whether there are any pressures with which they can be supported.