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The Right to Disconnect – should we introduce it in the UK?

by Jackson B
The Right to Disconnect – should we introduce it in the UK?

By Adam Haines, Employment Law Partner at Aaron and Partners

Adapting to homeworking has been a learning curve for many of us over the past year. You might think that by now we’d all have perfected remote working, but the reality is that everyone’s situation at home is very different and I know from both my personal and professional experience, that it has come with many challenges.

The mental health impact of this pandemic has been significant – the usual boundaries and the sanctuary of home have been lost for many. Recent figures from the ONS found that people working from home spend more time at their jobs; are less likely to be promoted and take less time off sick.

According to the research, those using office studies, converted bedroom workplaces and kitchen tables did two-thirds more unpaid overtime in 2020, and were more likely to work after 6pm. Many factors drive these trends, but they really do highlight the reality of home working for lots of people.

As an employment lawyer, I speak to different business owners, HR professionals and managers every day and over the past year they have all faced similar challenges in their workplaces. Employers have a duty of care to their employees, meaning they must do what they reasonably can to support staff’s health, safety and wellbeing, even whilst they are working remotely.

As a result, now more than ever it’s vital that employers understand and carefully consider the impact that working from home could have on their employees’ mental and physical health.

Who’s calling for a right to disconnect?

Recently, the union Prospect conducted a survey into home working and found that more than two-thirds of people currently working from home would support a policy that would require organisations to negotiate with staff and agree rules on when people could not be contacted for work purposes.

Following this research, they urged the government to consider adding a ‘right to disconnect’ to the employment bill that would allow employees to switch off work-related tasks outside of their regular office hours.

Adam Haines

Adam Haines

It comes just a few weeks after the government in Ireland announced that from 1 April all employees, regardless of whether they are working remotely or in an office, have the right to switch off at the end of the day and don’t have to respond to emails, calls, text messages or other work-related communications.

What is a ‘right to disconnect’?

The right to disconnect is not something that currently exists in UK law, but in 2018 it was proposed as a human right by the EU after it was introduced by the French government.  The law in France requires organisations to negotiate with their employees, or their representatives, and reach an agreement on their rights to switch off and the practical steps to ensure that this happens.

What would a ‘right to disconnect’ mean for employers?

If we consider the mental health impact, I believe introducing a ‘right to disconnect’ could be a positive move and something needs to change, however, there are many aspects to consider, especially from an employment law perspective. In my experience, it is difficult for companies to successfully police this kind of legislation, which could cause issues within workplaces.

Additionally, the legislation may be too rigid and prevent employers from having the necessary flexibility to adapt to each employee’s needs. For example, some employees on occasions may need flexibility to work into the evening due to childcare or logistical issues.

In my opinion, a better approach would be for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to issue new guidance on working from home and a safe working environment that supports employees having more separation between their work and home life.

This way, employers have access to expert information and advice in regard to supporting employees’ home and work life balance but can also reasonably adapt this to each employee’s needs or concerns. This has never been more apparent than it is now with the effects of the pandemic.

There is also a real opportunity for organisations to utilise new technology. Systems could easily be implemented that could, for example, give prompts at specific times during the day to ask employees to take a break or even automatically log employees off the system. This type of monitoring would also potentially help employers to identify burn out and other mental health issues before they escalate.

Even as we emerge from this pandemic, homeworking is likely to become common place, and although employers and employees will be allowed more flexibility in their approach post-covid, employers must still address some of the challenges people face whilst working remotely and proactively address unhealthy work practices.

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