Working From Home: The Right to Disconnect

With increased remote working, particularly during the pandemic, employees often feel that they need to be available around the clock to respond to emails or make calls, even when on annual leave. In the light of the Irish Government’s publication Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Right to Disconnect, this article considers what employers can do to encourage a culture where employees’ right to disconnect is respected and, further, what the implications of a failure to do this could be.

What is the Right to Disconnect?

The right to disconnect is a principle which enforces the idea that employees should not be expected to work (including responding to emails and calls) outside their “standard hours of work”.

The Irish Code of Practice refers to it as a “right to maintain clear boundaries between work and leisure time”. The Code also sets out three main terms which help clarify the right further:

  1. a right not to work routinely outside of normal working hours;
  2. a right not to be penalised for refusing work outside normal working hours; and
  3. a duty to respect another’s right to disconnect.

While these are principles enshrined in Irish law, they are useful to provide an insight into the general direction of travel and what the right could look like were it to be introduced in the UK.

Do employees want a right to disconnect?

Following the first lock-down of March 2020, many employees have been forced to work from home full time. Whilst this has brought about benefits for some, it has also blurred the boundaries between work and leisure time for many.

Opinium ran a poll for the Trade Union, Prospect, which found that two-thirds of those currently working remotely supported the idea of a right to disconnect policy and wanted the UK to follow the lead of countries such as Ireland.

Support was higher among remote workers: 66% were in favour, compared with 59% of workers overall. However, it would appear that the majority of workers are in favour of a right to disconnect.

During the pandemic, 35% of remote workers admitted that their work-related mental health had worsened. Further, 30% said they believed they were working more unpaid hours than before, with 18% reporting at least four additional unpaid hours a week.

It is clear that having a right to disconnect could go a long way towards improving mental health across the workforce generally. It will enable staff to improve their work/life balance and in return, help them work more efficiently during their standard working hours.

Will such a right be introduced in the UK?

France, Germany and Italy have already implemented laws and policies surrounding the right to disconnect, recognising that, with increased technologies, this has become crucial. Canada is currently in the process of investigating a similar policy and its implementation.

There is nothing as yet to suggest such a policy will be implemented in the UK, but it is likely to be increasingly requested with more people working from home long-term. With an increase in remote working caused by the pandemic, Ministers are currently being urged to tackle this issue

Currently, it is only the Working Time Regulations that provide protections to employees from working excessive hours (specifically, more than 48 hours a week). However, many employees may be required to opt-out of the Regulations, leaving them with little, if any, protection.

Prior to any introduction of a ‘right to disconnect’ in the UK, what can employers do to provide staff with similar entitlements?

Employers can update their policies and procedures to ensure that such a right is catered for in a way which works with their specific business model. Where such a right is provided, staff and managers need to be properly trained to ensure that all are aware of the right to disconnect and what this means for them and their colleagues. It is important that staff are aware that not only does the right give them the benefit of being able to disconnect, but they also need to respect the rights of their colleagues.

In addition, mindful business charters can be introduced to help create a culture which is consistent with the right to disconnect. These:

  • Encourage employers and employees to be considerate of how their practices impact on other people.
  • Encourage them to consider whether the email need to be sent now or whether the delay send function can be used.
  • Reduce internal email traffic out of hours.
  • Encourage employees to use email signatures that set out their working hours, particularly for those who work flexibly.

Ultimately, employers will need to implement any right to disconnect policies with careful consideration of the needs of the business and its customers and clients.

This article is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Please contact Valerie Bond to discuss any issues you are facing.