Calls for ban on out-of-hours emails from bosses so employees have ‘right to disconnect’

‘It is clear that for millions of us, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office,’ trade union says

Saman Javed
Thursday 03 June 2021 15:20 BST
A person sends work emails from a laptop
A person sends work emails from a laptop (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A trade union representing more than 150,000 workers across the UK is calling on the government to introduce a “right to disconnect” for employees outside of office hours.

Prospect, whose members include engineers, scientists, managers and civil servants, says the measure is vital to “safeguard workers’ health” after a survey found that one in three people struggle to “switch off” since moving to remote working.

The campaign comes after the Republic of Ireland introduced new measures in April which gives employees the right to not respond to messages, calls or emails outside of work hours. 

It also requires bosses to add footers to any messages, reminding workers that they are not obliged to reply when not at work.

A survey commissioned by Prospect in April found that 66 per cent of people would support a “right to disconnect” being added to the UK Employment Bill.

“Remote working has accelerated the trend towards longer working hours, significantly increasing the risk of stress and burnout, and digital technology means that it is easier to be contacted and reminded about work out of hours,” Prospect said in its call to action.

Members told the union that bringing their work into their home “has blurred the line” between their work and personal life.

“I enjoy working from home but because I have no change of environment it can be hard to forget about work tasks,” one member said. Another added: “I feel like I am living from work rather than working from home.”

Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect said introducing a “right to disconnect” would  “redraw the blurred boundary” and “show that the government is serious about tackling the dark side of remote working”.

“People’s experience of working from home during the pandemic has varied wildly depending on their jobs, their home circumstances, and crucially the behaviour of their employers. 

“It is clear that for millions of us, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, with remote technology meaning it is harder to fully switch off, contributing to poor mental health. Remote working is here to stay, but it can be much better than it has been in recent months,” he said.

Prospect’s campaign has been backed by Trades Union Congress (TUC), which notes that similar policies have also been introduced in France and Germany. 

“We all need a good work-life balance with some proper downtime. It is time that workers in the UK were protected too with a legal right to disconnect from work,” Frances O’Grady, general secretary at TUC said. 

One benefit of remote working is increased flexibility, with some employers allowing workers to log on and off at different times to suit their individual needs. 

Hayfa Mohdzaini, a senior research advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, warns that introducing a “right to disconnect” policy could be “over-prescriptive”.

“Organisations should tackle any underlying issues that make employees feel as though they can’t switch off, such as heavy workloads or unreasonable management expectations. They should also be proactive in encouraging boundaries between work and home to support people’s work-life balance.”

Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England said employers should encourage workers to set their own boundaries, such as including their core hours in their email signature and blocking out “meeting-free” zones.

“A culture of boundary setting must come from the top and leaders must role-model good behaviours while working from home. Without this, poor working practices can creep into an organisation’s culture, increasing the risk of stress, burnout and mental ill-health within the workforce,” Blake said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it has reconvened a Flexible Working Taskforce to properly understand “the profound changes in ways of working that are emerging as a result of the pandemic”.

“We recognise that this has been an exceptionally difficult year, and that the pandemic has had an impact on mental health.

“We are wholeheartedly committed to improving and upholding workers’ rights, which is why we will fulfil a manifesto commitment to consult on making flexible work the default,” the spokesperson said.

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