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The Right To Disconnect

Technology is a wonderful thing. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it enabled millions of workers to do their jobs from home, allowing them to stay safe whilst playing their part in keeping the organisation they work for operating. Two years on from the first lockdown, as hybrid working becomes the norm, concerns are increasing that many employees are struggling to separate work life from home life, as technology such as email, instant messaging, and smartphones make it difficult to disconnect from the workplace. Does being home and being able to cook a healthy meal and pick up the children from school make up for the disadvantages of having to work evenings and weekends? Is presenteeism being measured by email response times (including after hours) and connectivity to the network? And how can employers ensure that their employees manage their stress levels and health to ensure they are not at risk of retention problems or future Employment Tribunal claims?

One solution is referred to as the right to disconnect. Some countries, such as France, Italy, Spain, and more recently Ireland, have brought in legislation enshrining the right to disconnect in law.

What is the right to disconnect?

The right to disconnect refers to an employee’s right to log off from their computer and not have to respond to emails or messages outside of the company’s normal working hours. Research conducted in 2021 by Autonomy thinktank showed that in 2020 UK workers put in £35 billion worth of unpaid overtime. This comes at a terrible cost - a 2016 study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that long working hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease. It was concluded that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

The Autonomy thinktank proposes that amendments to cover the right to disconnect be made to the Employment Relations Act 1996. The amendments would prohibit employers from requiring or expecting employees to monitor or respond to any work-related communications or carry out any work outside of their normal working hours. To enforce the right to disconnect, employers would be subject to an Employment Tribunal claim if they tried to dismiss or discipline an employee who refused to work outside of their contracted working hours.

Although the UK government does not have any immediate plans to implement Autonomy’s recommendations, employers can take the lead and put in place policies to encourage employees to take a proper break from work to benefit their health and wellbeing.

Is the right to disconnect the answer?

There are certain industries where the right to disconnect is simply not practical, for example, if a major incident occurs, those working in frontline emergency services need to respond to messages and work overtime or else lives may be lost. And in most professions, there are certain busy times of the year or particular projects that require all staff to put in some extra hours for the good of the entire company.

As is usually the case, the answer lies in creating a balance. As an employer, you can take the following steps to protect the health and wellbeing of your employees whilst ensuring that you can rely on your team to work extra hours the odd times when it is needed:

  • Consult with your team and find out how they feel about having the right to disconnect. Find out how the pandemic and working from home has affected your employees and whether or not they feel pressured to respond to communications outside of normal working hours.
  • Implement a ‘no emails on holiday’ rule. If an employee is on holiday, have their emails redirected or even deleted (as long as the sender understands that they need to email back after a certain date). This ensures that not only can the employee take their annual leave in peace, but they do also not have to dread returning to hundreds of unanswered emails.
  • Most employment contracts include a clause stating that salaried employees will be required to work additional hours if required. To keep morale high try to minimise the need for additional hours and when they are required, make sure employees understand why and provide any support they require, for example, a taxi home and evening meals.
  • Provide updated training to managers and ensure they make clear to their teams that in most cases, monitoring or having to respond to workplace communications outside of normal working hours should be the exception rather than the rule.

Final words

To achieve a balance between flexible working and work/life balance it is advisable that as an employer you enter into a consultation with your employees regarding the right to disconnect and put in place policies and procedures that work for your organisation. Taking control will help protect your best interests in terms of retaining staff and minimising the risk of health and safety/stress-related workplace claims.

To discuss any of the points raised in this article please do not hesitate to contact us.