Do employees have ‘the right to log off’ while working from home?

The pandemic has led to an increase in home working and people feeling obliged to be contactable outside their normal hours, says Anna Nelson

Do employees have ‘the right to log off’ while working from home?

As our homes have become offices, classrooms, gyms and relaxation spaces all rolled into one, it is easy for the lines between work and home to become blurred. 

Many people feel more of an obligation to be contactable outside of their normal working hours, because remote working technology means it is always possible. People are also neglecting their annual leave, as they are unable to travel anywhere, so feel they may as well work. Pressures at work might also be high, as many businesses struggle through the pandemic. 

However, over time, these pressures – coupled with longer working hours – can cause employees to burn out, having a negative impact on both their physical and mental health. 

Tired and stressed employees are more likely to make mistakes 

As well as the impact on the individual, it should be considered whether this is a healthy environment for a business to thrive in. Employees who are tired and stressed out are more likely to make mistakes and less likely to be productive during the time they are working. 

A burnt out employee may also need to take periods off work to recover. On top of that, there are also potential legal consequences for employers who expect their employees to be available at any time of day or night while they are working from home.

The right to log off is not currently set out in UK law. However, it may only be a matter of time, as cases arising in France and Ireland have been held in favour of the employee, with one UK company in France being ordered to pay a former employee €60,000 for extensive remote working outside their normal working hours. 

Several countries, including France and Italy, have already adopted the right to disconnect into their national laws, and now the European Parliament is calling for this to be passed into EU law. Although the UK would no longer be legally bound by this if it were passed, it would have a persuasive element, so it is unlikely this is a topic which is going away any time soon.

Be aware of Working Time Regulations

In any case, in the absence of a specific right to log off, there are still protections in place for employees to protect them from excessive working hours in the form of Working Time Regulations, as well as employers’ obligations under health and safety laws.

As an employer, it is important to be aware of the 48 hour maximum working week, and also of an employee’s rights to daily and weekly rest breaks. 

A study commissioned by the European Union in 2020 found that people who work from home regularly are twice as likely to work more than 48 hours a week. And with employees increasingly unable to leave their work at the front door, the extra pressure to answer emails and messages that ping through on evenings and weekends can quickly rack up their working hours above the legal limit. It is an employer’s responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure this doesn’t happen. 

This links back to the employer’s legal duty of care to its employees, to help ensure their health and safety is protected. Mental wellbeing plays a significant part here, given that stress is a major cause of work-related illness in the UK. Employers who put pressure on employees to be contactable outside of working hours, or who promote a working culture where this is the expected norm, may find themselves guilty of failing in their duty of care, leading to personal injury claims or even action from the Health and Safety Executive. 

For now, we will need to wait and see whether an enshrined right to log off will appear in UK law, but, in the meantime, it is important that employers are aware of their current responsibilities and liabilities to ensure they avoid the pitfalls that can so easily be missed while their employees are working from home.

Anna Nelson is an employment law adviser at Howarths