Should employees have a ‘right to disconnect’?

The UK could follow France’s example and create an enforceable right to step away from technology. Sarah King reports

Thanks to technology, more employees are always on call. Unfortunately, it is becoming the new norm. Remote access creates pressure to be constantly accessible online or by phone: an unspoken obligation that can be detrimental to health and wellbeing. 

Of course, the Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC has been around for nearly a generation, giving workers the right to work no more than 48 hours per week on average, but many opt out of the maximum working week. It is also difficult to monitor work done out of the office – at home, at weekends, or both. 

But there is hope. The ‘right to disconnect’ has become a live issue, with employees being given a right to turn off their mobile devices once they have left work. The decision came in France this summer, when the French arm of Rentokil Initial was ordered by France’s Supreme Court to compensate a former employee with a payment of €60,000. The award was made because the company did not respect his ‘right to disconnect’ from his computer or phone outside normal working hours. 

The court’s ruling was the first of its kind under a new French law, which gives the right to disconnect to every employee using digital telecoms devices in their work. It also requires every French organisation with 50 or more workers to regulate how often electronic communication devices are used, to safeguard their employees. 

So how might this benefit British workers? The impact of the new French law, as confirmed by the French Supreme Court, means English law may follow suit. The only question is when. No comparable UK legislation yet exists: such a law would make common practice the introduction of policies that limit out-of-work messaging, reducing employees’ stress and helping to cement the lines between work and home life. 

Legislative challenges 

Enacting legislation to deal with the issue will be challenging. Lawmakers will have to ensure the ‘right to disconnect’ does not oblige employees to work at given times out-of-hours, for example. Nor must such a law become a device to create undue pressure on employees to complete work by a specific time. 

Lawmakers will also need to consider that a legal ‘right to disconnect’ might create a situation in which employers feel obliged to penalise employees who log in to a system when they are supposed to be disconnected. All of this has to be balanced by the benefits brought by connectivity and technology.

Under the new French law, organisations have to negotiate with employees, or their representatives, on their rights to switch off and the practical steps to ensure this happens. A comparable law in the UK would reduce employee stress and create clear lines between work and home life. Or UK firms could choose self-regulation – like some German companies such as VW. But without legislation, a voluntary code could produce a patchy response. 

Research shows that being unable to escape from work can be damaging to health. A Bupa survey in 2017 demonstrated that occupational stress keeps more than half of workers awake at night. Meanwhile, the Australian government discovered a direct link between increased working hours and poor mental health: anxiety levels and depression increase proportionately with the number of hours worked.

The introduction of a UK law which guarantees a right to disconnect would help to improve employees’ mental health, and according to research, increase productivity. At a personal level, it would allow them more time to spend with their family, and have a healthier work life balance. 

Whenever UK legislation is put in place to safeguard employees from constantly being on call, every employer should remember they already have the responsibility to act immediately to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees. 

Sarah King is an employment lawyer at national law firm Excello Law and author of  The Evolution of Work: Employment Law Issues for 21st Century Businesses