Should employees have the ‘right to disconnect’ from work?

Following legislation passed in France, Alan Price explores whether UK employees should be allowed to ignore work emails after hours.

Employers can take steps internally to allow employees to disconnect after leaving work for the day

Employers can take steps internally to allow employees to disconnect after leaving work for the day

From January 1st, all French workers have the legal right to disconnect outside working hours. The new law requires companies with over 50 staff to set in place measures regarding requirements to do work outside contracted hours. These measures have to be negotiated with staff and, if an agreed deal cannot be reached, a charter of good conduct must be drawn up. The charter has to set out the evening and weekend hours when employees are not supposed to send or answer emails.

The law has been positively received by French trade unions who believe that the increase in technology, especially smartphones, makes it more likely French workers are working over their 35-hour weekly limit. The positive attention the law received is likely to have brought this issue to light in this country but there is no indication that a similar rule could be introduced by the government.

British workers are restricted to a maximum 48 hour working week, averaged over 17 weeks, unless they have opted out of this right. The increasing use of emails, and the wide availability of company mobile phones, makes it more likely that employees are at least checking their emails overnight and at weekends, even if they’re not replying to them. This can have a negative impact on their personal health as some may start to struggle with the pressure of not checking emails, and others may start to worry about upcoming tasks leading to absences.

Even without a law in place, employers can take steps internally to allow employees to disconnect after leaving work for the day. Not every business will consider this to be an issue because they don’t tell employees to do additional work in the evenings, but they may find it surprising how many employees feel that this is expected of them. An initial step is to ensure expectations are communicated; tell employees that they do not have to access work emails after work and are not expected to reply or carry out extra work because of these.

Once employees are aware they’re not expected to carry out extra work, employers should ensure they’re aware of this occurring. Monitoring additional work is usually harder for home workers but an easy indication is to identify where work emails are arriving in inboxes late at night. It is important to discuss this with the employee. Rather than feeling obligated to do extra work, it may be that the employee is struggling to complete their workload during office hours so they may need extra support, extra training or a reshuffle of responsibilities.

Work-life balance is becoming an increasingly common way of measuring the best places to work; those who allow employees to switch off when they leave the office may find it easier to recruit and retain staff.

Alan Price is employment law director at Peninsula.

Further reading on the right to disconnect

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