Since the first lockdown in March 2020, the increased take up of home working has meant that statistically over a third of the UK’s working population have carried out some work from home.
While this hailed a relief from congested roads and overfilled public transport for some, for others it has resulted in the lines between work and home life becoming increasingly blurred.
Concerns relating to the wellbeing of those that feel they are on duty 24/7 has resulted in some calls for new legislation to limit when email communications can be sent to workers.
Right to disconnect
A recent BBC news article highlighted that the proposals for legal changes have the backing of at least one union, which wants new statutory protections to be put in place. The Prospect union wants to see the introduction of a ‘right to disconnect’ and is intending to present a petition to the government in support of such a law.
The union also highlights that in many respects, the UK is still behind France, Ireland, Argentina, and the Philippines in having such restrictions in place to safeguard workers’ wellbeing.
The new right to disconnect could mean a blanket ban on emails being sent to employees outside of their normal working hours. To comply with this rule, it is likely that employers would need to ensure that IT systems delete emails sent outside of working hours. The idea being that only then would employees not be under pressure to keep a constant check on their inbox.
Would a ban safeguard health?
Not everyone would agree. While restrictions may mean that emails will not come through during the hours that the employee is not contracted to work, the accumulation of emails for when they do start may lead to even further stress. If an employee is not free to respond to their emails at a time to suit them, they could end up feeling overwhelmed at the start of their shift.
The practicality of such a measure in restricting when an employee can work has also got to be questionable. Homeworking can bring its own unique pressures that can impact workers at all levels.
There may be times during contracted ‘working hours’ when there are unavoidable interruptions, perhaps there’s a delivery to take, a barking dog to let out or a child to supervise. All of these disruptions can take time and focus away from workday tasks, meaning the first opportunity someone may have to send an email is when the recipient is no longer working.
Putting a full ban on sending emails outside of normal working hours may therefore not be in everyone’s best interests.
Communicating safeguards and flexibility
More appropriate and certainly more practical than legislation is a work policy that has been effectively communicated to all, which recognises that staff may switch off their work computers and phones when they are not required to work.
Better still, employers should encourage their staff to do this and to make the most of their free time outside of working hours. Not only is this more likely to be good for the mental health of the majority of the workforce, but it also still allows for the flexibility of working in a way that suits the individual.
Paul Ball is an employment partner at Gateley Legal