Switching off the 'always on' workplace culture

How can employers best protect their workforce from the negative impact of long hours? Adam Grant reports

The UK has traditionally been associated with a long-hours culture. With advances in technology, the line between work and home life has becoming increasingly blurred, with many workers now finding it difficult to draw a clear distinction between the two. The UK workforce is now at a crossroads. With increasing evidence of the negative impact of this culture on physical and mental wellbeing, coupled with an upsurge in demands for more agile working arrangements, employers are now left with the difficult task of balancing these competing interests.

How has the law evolved?

An employer's main duty is to protect the health, safety and welfare of workers and other people who might be affected by their business. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. 

In 1998, the UK implemented the Working Time Regulations (WTR). The WTR introduced a number of safeguards for workers including holidays rights, rest breaks and perhaps most importantly, a limit on the average working week of 48 hours. Mindful of the impact on business and productivity, the WTR permits workers to opt out of this limit and, as such, many routinely work longer hours than their European counterparts.

In 2003, the UK introduced a statutory right for certain classes of employees to make a flexible working request, most commonly typified by a change to working days and core hours. In 2014, this right was extended to all classes of employees with at least 26 weeks' continuous employment.

More recently, the focus has turned to the protection of mental wellbeing and in 2017, Acas published guidelines for employers called Promoting positive mental health in the workplace.

Various cases have also sought to extend worker protections. In Carreras v United First Partners Research, the court held that an expectation by the employer (not even a direct request) that a disabled employee would regularly work late could be discriminatory. 

Why adopt more agile arrangements?

In today's competitive job market, offering agile arrangements has been proven to help attract and retain the best talent. Workers are keen to balance family and work commitments and to take better care of their health. Indeed, the Labour Party has pledged (if elected) to introduce a “presumption in favour of flexible working”.

However, if not managed carefully these arrangements can contribute to an ‘always on’ culture. Anecdotal evidence reveals that part-time workers regularly respond to emails on their non-working days and a survey by CV-Library.co.uk found that 72.4 per cent of respondents reply to emails or make calls outside their contracted hours.

That survey also found that 78.3 per cent of workers surveyed believed the always-on culture is negatively impacting today’s workforce, citing poor quality of sleep, increased stress levels and spending less time with family as examples of the damaging effects. 

What practical steps can be taken?

Finding a perfect balance is nigh on impossible, but some practical steps to get that little bit closer could include:

  • Proper handovers. Ensure workers properly hand over work to colleagues to reduce the chances of them being contacted during absence;
  • Out of office messages. Ensure the message makes clear that the individual is absent and provide an alternative contact. Some employers have even taken to automatically deleting emails received during periods of absence;
  • Advance warning. Include upcoming periods of absence in email signatures to encourage colleagues and clients to plan around absence;
  • Avoid isolation. Ensure those who work from home have someone they can speak to about any issues, including problems with mental ill-health (such as a mental health first aider); 
  • Accurate records. Advise workers to record all working time, regardless of whether it is within their contracted hours or not.

Ultimately, it is about being pragmatic and managing expectations. There will always be incidences where workers have to work outside their contracted hours, but how they are affected by that can be managed by adopting some of these practical steps and reminding workers that agile arrangements are to be encouraged and will not be detrimental to their career prospects.

Adam Grant is a partner at Wedlake Bell