the right to disconnect

the right to disconnect

The shift towards homeworking has many benefits – the time and cost saving by avoiding the commute and the ability to balance home and work life more easily, to name but a few.  One of the many disadvantages, however, relates to the blurring of the boundaries between home and work life.  Hands up who has checked their emails whilst still in their pyjamas? Taken a work call while cobbling the kids’ tea together? And whose been tempted to reply to a message from the boss after a glass of wine on a Friday night?

The “right to disconnect” or right to disengage seeks to protect employees by setting firm parameters around when an employee is in the office (virtual or otherwise) and when their working day ends so they can disengage to enable them to switch off, re-charge batteries and enjoy some family, leisure or down time.

It is well documented that excessive working hours and constant demands impact on physical health, mental health and family life. The Working Time Regulations already provide some protection around working hours, rest periods and annual leave but these measures don’t go far enough.

The Trade Union, Prospect, which represents more than 150,000 employees across the UK, is campaigning for government intervention to provide employees with a legally binding “right to disconnect”.  Such protections could see a ban on routine emailing or calling outside working hours or systems established to automatically delete or divert emails sent at certain times to deter the sending and checking of emails outside work hours.

Prospect and others are calling for such legislation to be introduced in the much-anticipated Employment Bill, which was due later this year, although many fear that this has slipped off the government agenda, due to the lack of mention in the Queen’s Speech last month.

A law outlining the right to disconnect has been in place in France for four years now, where companies are required to set agreed “specific hours” for certain workers.  Ireland is also leading the way as they introduced a code of practice last month.  Germany, Italy and the Philippines have also introduced similar measures seeking to protect staff outside their core working hours and Canada has also now pencilled this in on the government agenda.

In a recent study the ONS found that 35.9% of the UK’s employed population worked from home last year, in whole or part.  Survey results showed that this group did an average of six hours unpaid overtime each week while working from home, albeit recognising that this cohort saved time on commuting.  We have also seen data highlighting an increase in mental health concerns since the onset of the pandemic.

These new trends require some analysis and refined laws to protect employees.  The government has commissioned a Flexible Working Taskforce which is reviewing how hybrid working may work after the pandemic.  The right to disconnect is expected to be a feature of this.  Let’s hope so.

This blog is by Caroline Oliver, Senior Solicitor at Didlaw