Employees should have legal right to disconnect from work, says think tank

Research study calls for French-style legislation under which employers have to opt out of allowing workers to ignore work calls and emails outside their normal hours

Employees should have legal right to disconnect from work, says think tank

An overtime “epidemic” caused by home working during the pandemic must be curtailed with new right to disconnect laws, according to a new report. 

The report from think-tank Autonomy said that unpaid labour was a growing problem in the UK, exacerbated by home working during the pandemic. It said employees were frequently “switched back on” by their employers after the working day had finished to complete tasks, which impacted their mental health.  

The report proposed draft legislation to implement a ‘right to disconnect’ based on French law, which ensures respect for employee rest periods and allows them to ignore work calls and emails during their time off. 

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, said the report highlighted “important components” of good job design where employees are not at risk of burnout or overwork. 

“Excessive working hours and an ‘always-on’ culture create risks for negatively impacting the mental health of employees and the risk of burnout,” she said. 

“There should be no dichotomy between the approach that employers take to protecting physical and mental health and safety, and that employees should have the right to fully disconnect from work communications outside working hours.”

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The report suggested this should function as an opt-out legal requirement, with a specific standard that applies to all firms and sectors, adding that employers that wish to opt-out should be the “exception”, with the burden of proof falling on them to demonstrate why they should contact workers outside of their contracted hours. 

It said that an employer “shall not require a worker employed by him to monitor or respond to any work-related communications, or to carry out any work, outside of the worker’s agreed working hours” and there should be no detriment or consequence of a worker refusing to monitor work communications out of hours. 

The report claimed exemptions would be made for industries where this was not feasible, such as the care and financial sectors, where workers need to be available at unsociable hours. However, employers would need to demonstrate that all reasonable steps to minimise contact outside of working hours had been taken.

Suzanne Hurndall, relationship director at HR Inspire, welcomed the proposed law change, and highlighted that employees had become too “easily accessible” when working from home. 

“Workers need to feel reassured that they’ll not be discriminated against, criticised, dismissed, or experience any other adverse actions for not engaging in work-related tasks outside of hours including when on leave,” she said, adding that employers should liaise with their workforce to refine a right to disconnect policy to get more engagement from their employees. 

The report also revealed that women were disproportionately affected by unpaid overtime, with a previous study by Autonomy, Compass and the Four Day Week Campaign on overwork during the pandemic finding that women were 43 per cent more likely to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week than men.

Women with childcare responsibilities were also more prone to “mental distress”, the report said, with almost nine in 10 (86 per cent) women who undertook a standard working week greater than or equal to the UK average alongside childcare experienced mental distress during April 2020.

The study also found that new working patterns during the pandemic disproportionately impacted those with childcare responsibilities. Two-thirds (65 per cent) of workers whose working week increased beyond the standard 37.5-40 hours and who also engaged in active childcare during April at a rate greater than or equal to the UK average of 80 minutes a day, reported levels of mental distress.

By June, more than half (51 per cent) of workers keeping up this level of work alongside childcare responsibilities were experiencing mental distress. 

A recent survey of UK business leaders by Owl Labs found that one in four employers are considering introducing “right to disconnect” policies to help staff keep their home and work lives separate, while a further third (32 per cent) were preparing to develop new HR policies on disconnecting. 

Phillip Richardson, head of employment law at Stephensons, told People Management there were still steps employers could take to tackle digital presenteeism: “I would always encourage employers and their management teams to engage with their staff and understand staff preferences on out-of-hours contact,” he said, adding that firms needed to recognise that “there is a balance between working flexibly beyond the traditional nine-to-five model [while] at the same time acknowledging the clear need for a work-life balance”.