Union calls for workers’ right to ‘switch off’ in upcoming employment bill

Prospect says policy would tackle the ‘dark side of remote working’ as blurred boundaries between home and work significantly impact mental health

The majority of UK workers back a right to disconnect policy that would legally require employers to agree rules with their workforce on when people can and cannot be contacted.

A poll of 2,428 people, conducted by Opinium on behalf of union Prospect, found 66 per cent would back a policy that gave them the legal right to switch off.

The survey also found that just under a third (30 per cent) of workers were logging more unpaid hours now than they were before the pandemic, and 35 per cent of remote workers’ mental health had gotten worse as a result of the Covid crisis.

The union has called for a right to disconnect to be included in the much anticipated employment bill, which was first introduced in December 2019 but has been delayed because of the pandemic.

Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect, said including a right to disconnect in the UK would be “a big step in redrawing that blurred boundary between home and work and would show that the government is serious about tackling the dark side of remote working”.

He added that although people’s experiences of working from home during the pandemic had varied wildly depending on their jobs, home circumstances and, “crucially, the behaviour of their employers”, it was clear that, for millions, working from home had felt “more like sleeping in the office” because remote technology made it harder to fully switch off.

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“Remote working is here to stay, but it can be much better than it has been in recent months,” said Pakes.

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, said employers needed to be proactive in managing the risks of their workforce feeling pressured to be ‘always on’. She urged businesses to discuss with their managers and staff ways to prevent the always-on behaviour, while avoiding being too prescriptive about the hours when people should be working.

“It suits some people to log on and off at different times – for example, if they have caring responsibilities and want to complete some of their working time when it suits them in the evening,” said Suff. 

“Crucially, organisations need to tackle the underlying issues that are making employees feel they can’t switch off, such as heavy workloads and unreasonable management expectations.”

Suff added that technology was often “the enabler of presenteeism” rather than a core cause and “organisations need to be proactive in encouraging boundaries between work and home”.

The findings chime with previous research by recruitment firm Robert Walters, which found nearly half (47 per cent) of 2,000 managers feared their employees could be at risk of burnout following a change in working patterns and behaviours caused by Covid.

At the time Sam Walters, director of professional services at Robert Walters, warned that whereas before the pandemic businesses were increasingly offering policies geared towards “personal mental health issues” – including depression and anxiety – employers were now seeing a rise in staff reporting they were burning out because of increased work pressures.

“Burnout is an entirely different and recently recognised condition which, unlike other mental health issues, can be directly linked to work. As a result, employers have a crucial and central role to play to ensure their staff do not reach the point of burnout,” he said.