‘Right to disconnect’ debate highlights need for adequate work breaks

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Earlier this year, the European Parliament asked the European Commission to come up with a new EU (European Union) law which would give employees a right to disconnect from work-related tasks, activities and electronic communication during non-work hours without consequences, and to establish minimum standards for remote work.

This followed research carried out by the EU’s Eurofound agency which found that a third of remote workers use their free time to complete work tasks and are more likely to exceed the EU’s Working Time Directive than workers in offices.

These concerns appear to resonate with many UK home workers. A recent survey conducted by Opinium, found that many staff working from home complained about the blurring of their work and home lives. One worker put it bluntly: “I feel like I am living from work rather than working from home.”

Joanne Moseley: "4. Accept that your staff won’t be sat at their desks all of the time."Joanne Moseley: "4. Accept that your staff won’t be sat at their desks all of the time."

Some European countries have already taken steps to address this and others are considering doing so. For example, in France companies with more than 50 employees must set out times when staff should not be sending or answering emails. And, in May, Ireland introduced a right to disconnect to prevent employees having to routinely work outside their normal hours.

In November 2020, the union Prospect – which represents specialists such as scientists, engineers and technology workers – called on the UK government to introduce a legal requirement on employers to negotiate with staff and agree rules on when people cannot be contacted for work purposes. 

Impact of the pandemic

New communications and information technologies have transformed the modern workplace. Many organisations had already adopted agile working environments which focus on work as an activity rather than a place. But that process has been turbo-charged by the pandemic and huge numbers of office workers now work from home, or a combination of the two. Technology allowed many organisations to adapt to home working at speed and has kept many of us safe from Covid, helped to slow the spread of the pandemic and saved lives.

Danielle Parsons: "it’s no good having a policy in place if the culture of your workplace is very different. Managers set the tone."Danielle Parsons: "it’s no good having a policy in place if the culture of your workplace is very different. Managers set the tone."

Many of us may not have encountered video conferencing before Covid or had to think about the challenges of managing staff remotely rather than face-to-face in an office, but these are now very much part of our working lives.

The legal requirement to ‘work from home if you can’ ended on 19 July and the government has said that it ‘expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer’. Some workers have already returned to their offices in order to see and meet with their colleagues, clients and contacts in person, rather than just online or virtually. But many employers are giving their staff the option of remaining working from home for part of, or all, of their working week on a permanent basis.

Why are employees finding it hard to disconnect?

There’s no doubt that some workers have found it difficult to separate their work and home lives in lockdown. In some cases, it’s an issue of space. Those people who aren’t lucky enough to have a separate designated home office have had to set up their workstations on their kitchen or dining room tables and in some cases on their beds.

They may also be competing for working space with other members of their families also working from home. Younger workers in particular may be renting accommodation in small flats which were never designed for remote working. Plus, many parents who’ve had to home school their children for significant periods over the past year have had to squeeze in their work commitments early in the morning, late at night or over the weekend giving them little or no time to relax and switch off.

Even without these issues, nowadays almost everyone has a smartphone with pop up notifications to let them know when they have a new email or message. This can lead to workers feeling that they have to respond and reply to this right away, even if they are unwell or if this is outside of their usual working hours. This can make it hard for people to unwind. And those that don’t or can’t respond to out of hours calls may worry about being perceived as ‘lazy’ or unmotivated.

All this means that people can feel pressured to be online and working all the time and if left unchecked can lead to anxiety, depression, work-related stress and eventually burnout.

Government response

It is an important part of employment law that workers have adequate rest breaks and holidays which provide time to take a break from work. The government has recently denied reports that it was considering moving away from the maximum 48-hour working week and instead wanted to enhance employment rights.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The Employment Bill, when introduced, will deliver the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation, including measures that will help people to balance work with their personal lives.”

Even if the EU does introduce legislation to give workers the right to disconnect, it won’t apply to the UK unless the government chooses to enact similar rules. That said, this is likely to remain a live issue and one that will be used by political groups in the UK to argue that we need similar restrictions in place here.

Tips for employers

  1. Many workplaces already have policies which make it clear that their staff don’t have to respond to calls or deal with issues that arise after they have logged off. But it’s no good having a policy in place if the culture of your workplace is very different. Managers set the tone. If they are sending out, or responding to, emails at 10pm at night, some people will think they are also expected to follow suit.
  2. Recognise that everyone works differently. Some people prefer to respond to calls/work enquiries in their free time. However, if they are responding to emails, it’s helpful to include something in their email to make it clear that they are sending the message now because it suits their working pattern, but they don’t expect the recipient to read, respond to or action the message outside of their normal hours. Another approach is to draft replies which don’t get sent out until their normal working hours.

  3. Encourage staff to take proper breaks when they switch off their devices and relax.

  4. Accept that your staff won’t be sat at their desks all of the time. Many home workers spend more time at their desks than they did in the office. If you encourage them to get up to make a cup of tea, put on the washing, take a lunch break etc they are more likely to be productive when they are working.

Joanne Moseley is a professional support lawyer in Irwin Mitchell’s national Employment and Pensions group.

Danielle Parsons is an employment partner at Irwin Mitchell LLP


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