What is the right to disconnect and does the UK need it to stop people burning out?
The rise in popularity of working from home has blurred the lines between private life life and office life, leading to calls for a right to disconnect from emails and work problems to improve wellbeing
by: Evie Breese and Liam Geraghty
13 Jul 2023
The pandemic didn’t introduce the notion of a right to disconnect, but it certainly made it crystal clear why it may be needed.
With the rise of working from home and technology that puts a desktop computer in the palm of our hands, there has been an inevitable rise of working from the garden, answering emails at the school gates, or checking updates in the supermarket.
The lines between work and time off have become increasingly blurred, making it harder for employees to fully separate themselves from their job. The pitfalls of overwork are obvious – burnout, difficulty engaging with family and friends, and stress-induced mental health problems – but without strong policies or legislation, there are few ways for workers to set boundaries with their employers.
The right to disconnect seeks to protect workers’ health and wellbeing from overwork, but there are serious concerns over how it could be enforced, or work in practice during emergencies.
Here’s what you need to know about how the right to disconnect could change the way we work for good.
What is the right to disconnect law?
A right to disconnect gives employees permission to disengage from work outside of their normal working hours. That means once workers are off the clock they will not receive or be required to answer any work-related calls, emails or messages.
The UK’s working time directive stipulates that employees can’t work more than 48 hours a week on average – normally averaged over 17 weeks – and the right would mean workers can’t be contacted outside of those hours, or their agreed contracted working hours.
The right to disconnect is an overarching idea that recognises the impact of technology on the workplace, with emails and instant messages meaning it is now easier than ever to contact colleagues.
But it is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution, according to Prospect – a union that has been campaigning for a right to disconnect. The idea is to boost wellbeing without infringing on the rights of employees to work flexibly.
“The right to disconnect is about creating a shared approach to work communications that supports flexible working but also allows people to switch off outside of core hours,” said Andrew Pakes, Prospect’s research director.
“Trade unions like Prospect have long championed flexible working, but it isn’t flexible if there is a digital leash pulling us into a constant state of work. Prospect wants the government to lead the way on this, making it a duty for employers and workers to agree plans on how to protect the boundaries between work and life.”
Why do campaigners say we need a right to disconnect?
Technology has changed the world of work and campaigners say that this has made it more difficult for employees to turn off from their jobs. As a result, workers could see their mental wellbeing suffer and their time away from work dwindle.
Even before the pandemic, there were fears around how technology was affecting employees’ working lives. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development warned in a 2017 study that almost a third of UK workers felt they could not switch off in their personal time while working remotely.
The 2,000-strong survey also found two-fifths of workers admitted to actively checking their work mobile or emails at least five times a day outside of working hours. Meanwhile, a fifth said fears over surveillance of their work made them feel anxious or even impacted on their quality of sleep.
But during the pandemic, workers were spending even more time working while at home. The Office for National Statistics found people who completed any work from home did six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week during 2020 compared with just over three hours for those that never work from home.
This phenomenon is affecting mental health, according to Pakes.
“Digital technology can support flexible working, but it can also cross the line,” he said. “Put it this way: We wouldn’t accept our bosses banging on our front door on a Friday night to then sit at our dining tables demanding answers about work while we eat. So why do we accept this digitally?”
Academics at Lancaster University’s Work Foundation also said employers should “help employees manage their work-life balance” and develop an “organisational right-to-disconnect policy” with staff and trade union representatives.
What are Labour’s plans for a right to disconnect?
The Labour party has backed the need for a right to disconnect, unveiling plans to include the “right to switch off” in the party’s general election manifesto.
The party’s deputy leader and shadow secretary of state for the future of work, Angela Rayner said: “Flexible working is not just about working from home, it is about a fundamental change to working practices to improve the lives of all working people. Flexible working means work fitting around people’s lives, not dictating their lives.”
She told the Financial Times that “constant emails and calls outside of work should not be the norm and is harming work-life balance for many”.
A Labour government would introduce measures restricting bosses from contacting their staff by phone, WhatsApp or email outside working hours, if Labour is voted into power in the next general election.
How would a right to disconnect work in the UK?
Prospect has proposed three ways in which a right to disconnect could be implemented in the UK.
The first is known as an enterprise agreement, essentially an agreement between an employer and a union to ensure employees can agree times during which they can and cannot be contacted. This approach can already be negotiated now as telecoms giant Telefonica brought in the policy in 2018.
The second method would be through a directive approach, which means a legal framework is put in place to enforce a right to disconnect. This approach has been used abroad, but more on that later.
The third method is a prescriptive approach, meaning a legislative or statutory approach is set out to tell an organisation what a right to disconnect would look like across different industries and sectors.
After Portugal introduced laws to ban bosses contacting employees outside of work hours, many praised the country for putting the wellbeing of workers first, however the forward-thinking measure has highlighted some complications.
Critics have since said that the new rules are short on detail, half-baked, and may even be unfeasible.
International media reports suggest certain issues, such as technical emergencies requiring the attention of an engineer, raise questions over when the rules apply. Others have questioned the meaning of ‘contact,’ and whether this applies to phone calls or letters, as well as texts and emails.
While designed to address the issues related to working from home – some employees find it hard to ‘switch off’ after hours – critics fear that the new rules could even backfire by making companies reluctant to allow working from home at all.
Some states in the US have laws against employers forcing employees to work overtime, however Orly Lobel, professor of law at the University of San Diego, has suggested that adopting and enforcing rules about work hours on a federal level would be overly complex.
“I don’t think that we’ll see a firm requirement of employers to not at all contact employees during non-work hours,” she told The Guardian.
Which countries have a right to disconnect?
The UK is behind the rest of the world when it comes to a right to disconnect, with several countries introducing rules to prevent employees from working outside their allotted hours.
In late 2021, Portugal introduced a law that would make it illegal for bosses to text or email their employees outside of working hours. The laws have been dubbed the “right to rest” and were brought in to improve work-life balance as working from home become more commonplace across the country.
Companies with more than 10 staff who ignore the new rules could face fines of up to almost 10,000 euros if they contact their employees outside of contracted hours.
“Telework can be a game-changer” but its growth needs to be regulated, Portugal’s labour minister Ana Mendes Godinho told a conference in Lisbon, the BBC reported.
The minister hoped the enhanced labour protections would entice more foreigners to the country.
“We consider Portugal one of the best places in the world for these digital nomads and remote workers to choose to live in, we want to attract them to Portugal,” she continued.
There is currently no specific right to disconnect under EU law, although the EU’s working time directive, like its UK equivalent, sets working hour limits. However the EU directive also stipulates minimum daily and weekly rest periods.The European Parliament took steps to introduce a right to disconnect in 2021, with the vast majority of MEPs voting in favour of making it an EU-wide fundamental right.
Other countries have gone further though, most notably France. French employers with more than 50 employers have been legally obliged to create a charter of good conduct since 2017. That involves working with union representatives to decide the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.
Ireland introduced a code of practice in April 2021 that gave workers the right to disconnect. While employees don’t have a legal right to disconnect, they can take action against employers at the Labour Court or Workplace Relations Commission if they feel they have been penalised for refusing to attend work to work outside normal working hours.
There have been similar movements to introduce some form of a right to disconnect in Luxembourg, Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium.
In some cases, companies have taken it upon themselves to introduce a right to disconnect. As well as Telefonica, Volkswagen is perhaps the most notable example. The German car manufacturer introduced policies in 2011 to limit emails sent before the working day, near the end of the day and over weekends.
How can you ask for a right to disconnect?
It would take discussions with your employer to bring a right to disconnect into your workplace and would, most likely, require union intervention. Find a union for your line of work with the Trade Union Congress’ union finder.
For wider policy change to convince the UK government to introduce a legal right to disconnect, add your signature to a petition, such as this one from Prospect.
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