Covid pandemic has worsened ‘epidemic of hidden overtime’, think tank says

‘Rapid shift from office to home’ means many more workers are ‘putting in significantly longer hours’, report says

Zoe Tidman
Monday 16 August 2021 19:27 BST
A think tank has called for a ‘right to disconnect’ to be introduced as a new legal protection for workers
A think tank has called for a ‘right to disconnect’ to be introduced as a new legal protection for workers (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Workers are facing an “hidden overtime epidemic” that has been worsened by homeworking during the Covid pandemic, according to a think tank.

Autonomy, which has a focus on the future of work, has called for the UK to adopt a “right to disconnect” as a legal protection to support people in switching off from work emails and calls.

“The fact that we are able to send and receive messages, emails, and online content twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week means that it is increasingly hard to disconnect, enjoy our leisure time and develop a healthy work-life balance,” the think tank’s new report said.

“This has created an epidemic of ‘hidden overtime’, where workers never quite ‘switch off’ and continue to do bits of work throughout the evening and weekend.”

The International Labour Organisation found several years ago that in the UK, a lack of clear work boundaries meant employees were more likely to take calls and do pieces of work in the evening.

In their new report, Autonomy said the issue of unrecognised overtime has been “greatly exacerbated” by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw a huge move towards working from home.

“The implementation of lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures has created a situation where an unprecedented number of people are working from home using digital technologies,” the think tank said.

“While many people have lost hours and jobs over the pandemic, the rapid shift from office to home has meant many others are putting in significantly longer hours.”

Angela Rayner, the shadow secretary for the future of work, said: ​​“In the modern workplace, we cannot find ourselves in a place where workers are expected to compromise their families, responsibilities or hobbies in order to meet employer expectations.

“It’s not a sustainable way to run an economy, many good businesses want to see these sorts of protections guaranteed to workers across the board.”

The Autonomy think tank suggested a “right to disconnect” should become enshrined in UK law, ensuring workers feel free to switch off from work-related electronic communications outside of normal working hours.

In 2016, workers in France won a legal right to avoid their work smartphone and emails outside normal working hours.

Will Stronge, the director of research at Autonomy, said the Covid pandemic had “accelerated” the need for “clearer boundaries” between work and home.

“By enshrining a right to disconnect in British law, workers will be able to take back some control of their lives,” he said.

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