Should UK employers offer the “right to disconnect”?

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Food for thought from Eversheds…

Précis

The “always on” work culture and compulsive email checking has become a workplace norm for many employees in the UK. With the advancement in technology and the ever increasing focus on competitiveness, it is no surprise that employees feel that they have to be seen to be delivering all of the time. The extent to which this should be curbed, rather than accepted as a workplace norm, has been on the agenda for some time in many countries.

Such technological freedom can lead to employees carrying on with work after leaving the office, outside of their normal working hours. Many employees will check and respond to work emails after hours, but is this a bad thing?

What?

The government in France clearly thinks so. The “right to disconnect” law was passed in August 2016 as part of a much larger and controversial reform of French labour law. However, the new labour laws led to widespread protests and strikes across France. As of 1 January 2017, companies in France with more than 50 workers need to negotiate an agreement with employee or to create a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours during which staff should not send or respond to work emails, normally evenings and weekends.

Those in favour and those against

Many supporters of the new French law believe that an expectation to check and respond to work emails after working hours can lead to stress, sleep problems and trouble with personal relationships at home. There is also an issue when employees are not adequately paid overtime for working so regularly outside of their normal working hours.

The French government appears to agree that the permanent connection between employees and their work is a problem and that intervention is required to allow employees to “disconnect”.

However, some employees have raised concerns over the law, claiming they are not happy with government interference with how and when individuals choose to work. It is clear that certain areas of work do require communication outside of normal working hours, for example, the financial market dealing with international transactions for clients based around the world. Some employers are concerned that the new law will mean their company cannot compete with their competitors around the world who are not under the same restrictions, which may ultimately result in losing work.

Will the new French law work?

Many have raised doubts over the new law, questioning how effective it will be in practice as there is no way to truly monitor its enforcement among individual employees. Although, ultimately, most people in France agree that communication overload is an issue that should be on every employer’s agenda so this may be a step in the right direction. Only time will tell if it’s an effective measure or perhaps just one step too far.

So What?

Could the UK follow the French and introduce a “right to disconnect”?

In the UK, apart from Working Time Regulations and general health and safety obligations, we have no specific laws concerning the “right to disconnect”. Many UK employees may see the new French law as an attractive option, but it is important to remember that there are important cultural differences between the UK and France. For example, in France the equivalent legislation to the Working Time Regulations specifies that the working week should not extend beyond 35 hours. In the UK the maximum number of working hours in a week is 48. However, in the UK (in contrast to many other EU countries) an opt-out mechanism allowing employees to work for longer if they wish is often taken advantage of by employers.

For many businesses blanket policies banning workers from accessing their inboxes or communicating with clients out of hours is not practical or realistic, especially if they work internationally. Some employers though will have policies limiting the number of internal emails they can send on a given day in the aim to reduce unnecessary emails and to encourage employees to talk to each other instead.

As a general principle, employers should take care to ensure that workers aren’t always “connected” especially during holidays i.e. employers could introduce procedures that encourage employees to take a proper break during their annual leave. For example, a large company in Germany went one step further and it allowed staff to opt to have any new emails that arrived while they were on holiday automatically deleted.