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The legal right to disconnect

View profile for Chloe Pereira
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In a recent study conducted by Autonomy, a future of work think-tank, working from home during COVID-19 has been linked to an epidemic of hidden overtime, having negative effects on workers' mental health and disproportionately affecting working women.

As part of its paper, The Right to Disconnect, Autonomy is advocating amending the Employment Rights Act 1996 so that employers are prohibited from requiring employees to monitor or respond to work-related communications or to complete any work outside working hours. An employee facing a detriment for refusing to work outside their agreed working hours could bring a claim in the employment tribunal.

The paper suggests that businesses that can’t comply with the new requirements would be granted an exemption – for example, those in the care sector. In order to opt-out they would need to demonstrate a clear need to communicate with workers outside of contracted hours.

Ireland is considering the legislation that was enacted in France. The French set the example in 2017 when they required companies with over 50 employees to limit their staff's use of email during working hours.

Whether our government takes similar steps to amend legislation or not, addressing the issues highlighted by the Autonomy research will only benefit the workforce and in turn the employer. Not least bearing in mind the risk of Plan B returning more people to working from home again (see this month’s article on the government’s autumn/winter covid plan).

Some steps employers can take to promote the wellbeing of those working from home include:

  • Encouraging employees to take appropriate rest breaks including annual leave
  • Not sending emails outside of working hours
  • Including text in your emails making clear that, for example, you may be sending it out of hours as you work flexibly, but you don’t expect a reply

The flip side

Most of us have experienced the challenge of separating work from home life – whether during the pandemic or otherwise, and can see the benefits of the measures described above. But what about the issues these good intentions might cause? 

Research conducted by the University of Sussex found that bans on out-of-hours emails may aid relaxation for some employees, but for those with high levels of anxiety and neuroticism, the "growing accumulation of emails" could actually increase stress levels.

The CIPD has spoken out in favour of clear guidance on remote working in order to ensure balance, rather than a blanket ban on out-of-hours emailing.

As with most things, a balanced approach usually works well. Employers would be well advised to consider a combination of measures to tackle the pressures that can be caused by out of hours working.