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Employment

What is a right to disconnect and does the UK need one after Covid?

Working from home has blurred the lines between home life and office life during the pandemic and led to calls for a right to disconnect from emails and work problems to improve wellbeing

Even as Covid restrictions lift and pave the way for employees to return to offices, just one in five business makers plan to bring workers back into the office for five days a week after the pandemic, down from one in three before, according to YouGov.

That means the increase in the number of people working from home is set to be a sustained one. Analysis from Lancaster University’s Work Foundation found just under six per cent of employees worked remotely or had a hybrid working setup pre-Covid. The proportion rose to just over 30 per cent in the first national lockdown and had only dipped slightly by March 2021.

The shift has been seen all over the country, the Work Foundation added, with 29 per cent of workers in the north-east of England and 27 percent in the North West continuing to work remotely, both comparable to figures for London.

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Labour’s plan to make flexible working a “force for good” has drawn fresh attention to working rights during the pandemic, including when employees have the right to disconnect from their day job.

While Labour has faced criticism over the campaign, following reports the opposition party are threatening 90 staff with redundancy, Keir Starmer’s policy push highlights just how much working lives have changed for many.

Those changes look set to stay with remote and hybrid working set to become commonplace. 

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But working from home risks a blurring of the lines between work and home life. That’s why the calls for a right to disconnect have grown louder.

What is the right to disconnect law?

A right to disconnect gives employees the right to disconnect 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 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 the right 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 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 of 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 as the pandemic hit, workers have spent 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.

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This phenomenon is affecting mental health, according to Prospect research director 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?”

Labour has backed the need for a right to disconnect. Future of work secretary 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.”

Campaigners Right to Disconnect UK are also leading calls for the UK to introduce new rules.

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. 

Which countries have a right to disconnect?

The UK is very much 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.

Portugal has introduced a law that would make it illegal for bosses to text or email their employees outside of working hours. The new laws have been dubbed the “right to rest” and were brought in to improve work-life balance as working from home has expanded in 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 ministerAna 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 under EU law for a right to disconnect, 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 earlier this year, 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.

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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 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 in 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 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.

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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