Third of business owners against ‘right to disconnect’ laws, study suggests

But this was despite two-thirds of employees supporting the introduction of such rules, with three million feeling pressured to check emails outside working hours

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More than a third (36 per cent) of business owners would vote against the introduction of a ‘right to disconnect’ law, a study has found. 

However, the research by iCompario, which surveyed 2,000 employees, revealed that two-thirds (66 per cent) of employees would welcome the UK following in the footsteps of France and introducing such a law.

It also found that more women than men supported the introduction of the law (70 per cent compared to 62 per cent), and that those most in support of the law were in executive-level roles (72 per cent).

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According to the research, which also used ONS labour market data to extrapolate the survey’s findings across the entire workforce, 3.5 million employees said they felt ‘very pressured’ to check emails outside of their contracted working hours, and 6.5 million felt ‘some pressure’ to do so.

A further 1.8 million employees said they put pressure on themselves to do this, rather than their employer applying the pressure. Only a third (33 per cent) of those surveyed said they did not feel any pressure to check emails outside of work. 

On average, the survey found that employees took 5.7 days to ‘disconnect’ when out of office, and with average holidays lasting 8.7 days, this meant employees spent only three days disconnected from work. More than one in 10 (14 per cent) said they can never switch off while on holiday.

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More than half (53 per cent) of those in senior roles felt pressure to check emails outside of work. On average, those in CEO or business owner roles took 7.5 days to switch off completely, and a fifth (21 per cent) were never able to switch off.

Meanwhile, almost half (46 per cent) of those in administrator and assistant roles said they didn’t feel pressured to check emails during non-working hours. This group also took on average 3.8 days to switch off during holidays.

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of those surveyed said they checked their work emails from personal devices at least once a day, including during sickness absence, while caring for loved ones and while attending medical appointments.

The same percentage (76 per cent) said they checked work communications during Christmas or other religious breaks, weekends, evenings, and early mornings. A quarter (25 per cent) of those who used personal devices to check work emails were never able to switch off.

Meanwhile, those who showed the most restraint with regards to using personal devices were the most able to easily switch off (42 per cent).

Kerry Fawcett, digital director at iCompario, said the pandemic had changed the way businesses operate, making instant access to emails through personal devices commonplace. “It’s incumbent on managers to work with their employees to ensure that there isn’t a risk of burnout through being unable to relax after work,” she said.

Amy Butterworth, head of consultancy at Timewise, said that choice around working hours was a key consideration of flexible working arrangements, but that the onus should be on leaders to identify who was consistently working outside of their normal hours, as a lot of this is to do with culture.

Workplaces with an ‘always on’ culture, “in which employees are expected to respond to emails and calls at any time of the day, and to deliver to unmanageable timescales”, are not only unhealthy places, but will also not get the best out of their employees, she said.

Butterworth added that leaders should “clarify what’s expected of their staff, and set protocols around how and when people contact each other” and lead by example, “instead of firing out emails at all hours and making others feel pressured to do the same”.

Alexandra Carn, employment partner at Keystone Law, pointed out that under the Working Time Regulations 1988, employers have obligations around the number of hours employees work, as well as statutory obligations around health and safety, and it can be difficult to monitor the hours worked by remote employees.

“Electronic communications are now the norm; they are hard to ignore and the expectation is for an immediate response,” she continued. “This is leading to a greater infringement into employee’s personal lives… this is not going to change and is something that needs to be addressed.”

Paul Seath, employment partner at Bates Wells, agreed that it may be challenging to enforce a ‘right to disconnect’ law, and some employees may feel unable to take advantage of it. “Experience tells us a simple change in the law will not always work,” he said. “The change therefore needs to come from the top and be woven into the way organisations work and operate”.

While the law may have advantages in terms of wellbeing, Seath said that one disadvantage may be that teams with differing work patterns may be unable to implement it: “Often someone’s working time will overlap with someone else’s ‘disconnect’ time and reconciling the two is not always straightforward.”