The right to disconnect: Is having ‘always-on’ employees good for business?

Picture this. You’re in a job interview and are questioned on your willingness to pick-up work emails outside of office hours. Eager to prove you’re a hard-worker, you say it isn’t a problem. One point in the bag, right? Wrong.

In ‘burnout Britain’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that being ‘always-on’ is commendable, but could this attitude be frowned upon and even against the law in the UK in the future?


On 1st January, 2017, legislation came into effect in France dubbed ‘the Right to Disconnect’ which seeks to encourage a better work-life balance for workers. As a result, French businesses with 50 or more staff must agree times during evenings, weekends and days off, where work must not be carried out with a focus on reducing the impact of responding to work-related emails and messages. Having these out-of-hours agreements in place is expected to result in workers being less stressed.

Famed for working the longest hours in the European Union, analysis from The Trade Union Congress claims the number of people in Britain working excessive hours has risen 15% since 2010 and research is increasingly showing that when work intrudes on people’s downtime, it causes stress and impacts a person’s physical health.

The results of the 4th European Survey on Working Conditions which collects data on 24,000 workers across 31 European countries, revealed that people who reported more after-hours contact from work, also reported higher rates of health issues, such as musculoskeletal pain and cardiovascular conditions. A real-life study from the University of British Columbia also found that people who check their emails only three times a day were significantly less stressed than those who check their emails continuously.


The double-edged sword of technology

While technology including smartphones has allowed many of us to enjoy greater flexibility with when and where we work, it is also responsible for blurring the boundaries between work and home life. A study led by Nottingham Trent University found we check our smartphones on average 85 times a day and a separate study by dscout – a research firm which specialises in consumer reactions to products – found that 87 percent of participants checked their phones at least once between midnight and 5 am.

Up against the distraction and convenience of a smartphone and the flexibility it presents for both employee and employer alike, can the UK ever mirror the actions of its French neighbour? And should it even bother?


Ben Black, director of My Family Care, a firm which helps employers establish family friendly working in the UK, says flexible working is the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge that nearly every organisation faces today. He explains: “If you work for one of the many leading businesses where culture is good and performance is measured then there will be lots of individual “honest negotiations” around flexibility. Often, the quid pro quo of flexibility is that you stay in touch and “on it” even when you’re on holiday. Legislating for a right that by its nature is often an individual discussion, is wrong.”


But Stephanie Barnett, managing director of Pure Human Resources, says: “How can productivity be high when we never allow our employees to detox from our digital world?  Why, when you go on holiday for two weeks, should you have to check your emails?  After all you are on holiday, yet intrinsically most managers expect it.”


Despite a swathe of differing opinions on the subject, less than one month after the French legislation came into effect, some UK businesses have been inspired and are introducing changes to the way they treat out-of-hours contact.

One such firm is Toast PR, which operates in an industry where ‘always-on’ is expected and key, yet it has taken the bold step to introduce a policy where staff are not permitted to reply to emails between 7pm and 9am.

“We have put our own right to disconnect policy in place to prevent our employees from burnout and what we call work grazing,” something managing director Julia Mitchell explains as being connected to work 24/7 and at weekends via smartphone and never switching off.

The policy ‘politely’ asks that if employees - many whom Mitchell says work from home and are part-time working mums - want to work outside of the core hours, that they leave emails in draft and send them during the hours requested but if things are urgent, they can text one-another.


So, what impact has the policy had? A positive one, says Mitchell. “We are more focused in work hours and are all spending more time with our families, going to the gym, cooking, reading, socialising instead of being slaves to our devices.”

But Mitchell is not alone in her pioneering of a right to disconnect in the UK. Allied London, a property investment firm in London, is also trialling it and actively reducing its ‘screen-time’ in its communications team.

“We all know that the 9-5 is dead; people don’t want to work set hours or be glued to their desks at all times and emails on phones are great for this. But it’s easy to get carried away,” says its PR manager Daisy Barnes who is also trialling a no email policy after 7pm. She admits it’s not an easy process and likens it to a lifestyle change but believes the peace of mind “switching off” can give employees is worth the effort.


The legal view

While switching off from 7pm, may seem perfectly plausible, how in reality can this be implemented when many employees have to travel across the UK and even abroad for work meaning longer hours, different time zones and an even bigger workload to manage.

Employment solicitor, David Sheppard from Capital Law says this highlights the many practical difficulties in introducing a law or policy requiring staff to disconnect after certain hours. “The obvious question is which hours apply, the overseas time or the employer’s local time?”

He continues: “Currently, an employee who is based in the UK is subject to the protections of the Working Time Regulations even though they may on occasion be required to work temporarily overseas on short assignments. The 48-hour limit will therefore apply, unless the employee has opted out of this limit.”


According to Sheppard, the likelihood of the right to disconnect being implemented in the UK is low, particularly as Brexit looms. In fact, he suggests that one of the most likely EU worker protections to be removed once the UK leaves the EU is the 48-hour weekly working time limit. He says: “It is widely anticipated there will be a general relaxation of working time regulation to promote the UK as having competitive employment laws in comparison with its European neighbours.”

While he doesn’t completely write-off the UK Government introducing a legal right to disconnect at some point in a post-Brexit UK, he questions how this would work in practice.

“If a law gives workers an option to disconnect, many workers may feel an unspoken pressure to remain connected and find it is the only way to keep in control of their workload, so any law could have a minimal impact.”


Would you consider introducing a right to disconnect in your business, for the good of employee's health? Let us know in the comments below.

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