The speed of the shift from office to home working due to the Covid-19 pandemic and increased use of digital technologies has changed the way in which many employees work, and working patterns/methods may never return to traditional, pre-pandemic, models. New research published in August 2021 from Autonomy Thinktank The Right to Disconnect
, which is co-authored by barrister Nick Bano, has drawn information from a variety of sources and made various findings on the impact of the pandemic on the ability to disconnect from work. These include:
- A large increase in unpaid working hours
- Negative impacts on mental health
- Working women being disproportionately affected by mental health issues.
As a solution to protect wellbeing in the face of new ways of working and increases in the use of technology, the report proposes that amendments are made to the Employment Rights Act 1996. These amendments would prevent employers from requiring employees to monitor or respond to any work-related communications, or carry out any work, outside of their standard working hours. The amendments would also give workers the right to bring a claim in the employment tribunal if they are subjected to a detriment for failing or refusing to work outside of their agreed working hours.
Will the UK impose legislation on the right to disconnect?
Whilst legislation has been imposed in France, Italy and Spain regarding the right to disconnect from technology, at present there is no sign from the UK government that it intends to legislate in this area. Nevertheless, the evidence that employees are finding it difficult to switch off from work is significant, as are the adverse impacts on mental health from a failure to be able to do so.
Agile working and work/life balance
True flexibility in work recognises that some individuals may want to work outside core/traditional office hours if it suits their lifestyle. However, different working hours and patterns can risk exacerbating the issue of employees being unable to switch off in circumstances where they may be receiving communications from colleagues at various times of the day (and sometimes night).
We are increasingly seeing employers looking at ways in which to help employees implement and maintain boundaries between work and non-work time, such as:
- When emails are sent out of traditional hours due to that individual’s preferred working pattern, having an email sign off that makes it clear a response is not required outside of the recipient’s normal working hours
- When emails appear on employees’ mobile phones, allowing the employee the ability to turn off notifications or remove the functionality during non-working hours or periods of annual leave
- Making use of technology, visible to all colleagues, to show times when employees are working (and available to be contacted) and not working to avoid employees being emailed/called outside their working hours
Supporting employees in maintaining a healthy work/life balance is likely to remain a live issue as the hybrid working model continues to evolve and will increasingly be an issue employers will be expected to proactively manage in order to support their existing employees’ well-being, and to help attract new talent.