Should UK employers consider giving workers a ‘right to disconnect’?

Limiting employees' access to emails outside of work hours could boost both wellbeing and productivity, says Jon Heuvel

A new law in France, which took effect on 1 January 2017, has given workers a legal right to ignore work-related emails outside of their normal working hours. The legislation affects businesses with more than 50 employees and is intended to encourage staff to take a proper break and escape the ‘always on’ culture of the modern workplace.

Worker stress

The development is a timely reminder that employers need to take the health and wellbeing of workers seriously. The proportion of tribunal claims citing work-related stress as a contributory factor has increased significantly in recent years, and employers are understandably concerned about the impact excessive job pressure could be having on employee productivity.

While there are likely to be many causes, the proliferation of smartphones and other digital devices, and the increasingly widespread use of remote access facilities, has almost certainly contributed to a culture where customers – and managers – assume that employees are available 24 hours a day.

Working Time Regulations 1998

The primary purpose of the Working Time Regulations 1998 is to protect the health and safety of workers by making sure they take adequate rest. In France, the equivalent legislation specifies that the default working week should not extend beyond 35 hours. In the UK, the maximum number of hours that can be worked in a week is 48. However, in the UK (in contrast to all other EU countries) most employers choose to take advantage of an opt-out mechanism that allows employees to work for longer if they wish to do so.

Despite the widespread use of this opt-out, employers should take care to ensure that workers aren’t over-using digital devices during their downtime or holidays. While they may not want to go as far as enforcing a blanket ban, senior managers should do what they can to limit such activity; for example, by avoiding issuing instructions to staff that require an out-of-hours response. Similarly, they should be mindful not to send instructions to employees after the working day ends, or over the weekend.

Blanket ban

For many customer-driven businesses, banning workers from accessing their inboxes or communicating with clients out of hours is simply not practical or realistic. However, employers could introduce procedures that encourage employees to take a proper break during their annual leave. For example, Daimler allows staff to use an out-of-office message stating that emails are being deleted while they are away. Other organisations prefer to apply restrictions preventing individual employees from accessing their inboxes remotely during holidays lasting two weeks or more, to encourage them to take a complete break. In the case of the latter, employers may also want to make sure that a system is in place to contact the employee if a business-critical situation arises or in the event of an emergency.

Even though blanket ‘right to disconnect’ employment rights are unlikely to be introduced for UK workers, employers should not ignore the issues that can arise from excessive use of digital devices. Where possible, they should take proactive steps to encourage all employees to adopt a healthy lifestyle and promote work-life balance.

Jon Heuvel is an employment law partner at Shakespeare Martineau