The shift to more home and hybrid working as a result of the pandemic has led to growing calls in the UK for employees to have a legal ‘right to disconnect’ from digital communications with their employer to combat ‘always on’ working cultures.
A number of other countries including Belgium, France, Italy and Spain have already passed legislation that includes the right to disconnect, while the European Parliament passed a resolution last year in favour of the right to disconnect. This called on the European Commission to prepare a directive ‘that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours’. This directive if it were brought forward would be likely to also establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods’.
Of course, the UK is no longer governed by EU legislation, but there is a growing interest in the question of whether there is a need to legislate for a right to disconnect in this country as more people work remotely.
The Scottish Government recently announced its support for a right to disconnect for public sector and Government employees which was welcomed by the Prospect union as a means of preventing an ‘aways on’ culture and burnout. Under the right to disconnect, employees would be entitled to “switch off from work” and not engage in digitally-enabled communications outside of their normal hours, including not having to respond immediately to work-related emails, telephone calls or other messages
A growing interest in a right to disconnect
A recent survey of 1,050 UK adults conducted by Ipsos, suggests there is significant support among the general public for this right, with 6 in 10 people saying they would support the introduction of a law giving employees the right to ignore work-related communication outside working hours.
However, a CIPD survey of 1,000 people in employment in the UK conducted in January 2021 found that the proportion of workers who say they would use this right if it were introduced was significantly lower. A fifth (18%) of workers said they would use a right to disconnect to prevent their employer from contacting them digitally at all outside working hours. A further 48% would allow their employer to continue to contact them for specific circumstances such as emergencies or during busy times of the year. A quarter (26%) would allow their employer to contact them outside of contracted hours without restriction.
This range of views among workers towards a right to disconnect is not surprising given that a significant proportion of workers report that digital communication also has positive effects. Our research shows that more than half of employees say having remote access to the workplace enables them to work flexibly, and a third say it makes them feel empowered.
Nonetheless, a sizeable minority of workers support the idea of having a right to disconnect in some form which suggests that this is something policymakers should consider.
As part of any evaluation of whether to introduce a right to disconnect it would be important to consider the extent to which it would have its desired effects.
Would a right to disconnect address really help reduce stress and allow people to switch off from work?
A major potential flaw is that it would not address the real issues at the heart of so-called ‘always on’ cultures where people feel pressured to work during their free time. If a company is badly managed, where people have to work very long hours or under excessive pressure, simply giving them the legal right to choose not to respond to calls, emails or other digital communication outside of working hours won’t resolve these issues. A right to disconnect in itself won’t stop people from worrying about their work during weekends or evenings or reduce any stress they are under and any problems will still be there the next time they log on. This means organisations need to understand the underlying issues that are driving unhealthy working practices and the need people feel to be ‘always on’. Unmanageable workloads, impossible deadlines and unrealistic management expectations are all likely to be contributory factors.
The only sustainable solution is to ensure that managers manage employees’ workloads effectively through agreeing on realistic objectives, providing appropriate autonomy and constructive feedback and joint problem solving to resolve issues which might cause people stress or to work excessive hours. Just as important is providing people with flexible working opportunities that suit them to help them manage their work-life balance in a way that fits with their lives. Organisations also need to ensure that the culture and line manager behaviour are not inadvertently encouraging people to be available out of normal working hours. For example, managers need to role-model responsible use of email, take annual leave and not work when on leave.
Would a right to request be effectively enforced?
Another issue that would need to be considered before the introduction of a right to disconnect is how it would be effectively enforced given a strong body of evidence suggests the enforcement of existing employment rights in the UK is inadequate. For example, under existing health and safety legislation, employers in theory have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. The HSE’s framework for managing stress is a good one and requires employers to address the underlying causes of work-related stress. However, this legal obligation is rarely enforced and CIPD research suggests many employers are either completely unaware of it or are ignoring their responsibilities in this area.
There is little point in introducing new employment laws such as a right to disconnect before improvements are made to ensure existing employment rights are enforced effectively. Wider shortcomings with the enforcement system include the lack of proactive enforcement to deter employers from causing work-related stress as well as long waiting times for employment tribunal claims to be heard and a high level of non-payment of compensation awards by employers. State enforcement through bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive, HM Revenue and Customs and the Equality and Human Rights Commission is inadequate partly due to a lack of resources in particular a lack of inspectors compared to international best practice.
This should be an obvious and necessary first step for policymakers who are interested in improving job quality and addressing discrimination and unfair treatment by employers against vulnerable groups in the labour market. Consequently, it is crucial that the UK’s enforcement bodies have the necessary resources, including sufficient inspectors, to improve the effectiveness of enforcement activity. Just as importantly there needs to be a stronger focus on helping employers to comply with employment law for example through providing additional resources to ACAS’s people management advisory services. CIPD has made a comprehensive list of recommendations on how to revamp the UK’s labour market enforcement system based on research which remains just as relevant today as when it was published in November 2020.
Without these necessary changes to how employment rights are enforced, any new law such as a right to disconnect would be likely to have little effect. However, even if it were to be enforced properly, it is debatable how much impact it would have as it wouldn’t change organisational culture or help address the poor management practices that lead to people feeling they can’t disconnect. In the CIPD’s view, better enforcement of the existing legal requirement on employers to protect workers from stress by identifying and managing its causes would be a much more effective way of tackling always on working cultures and excessive pressure arising from digital communications.
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