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The ‘Right To Disconnect’ for UK Workers

According to the TUC, more than 5 million UK workers put in a total of 2 billion unpaid hours in 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly further exacerbated this issue as UK workers have had to adjust to a ‘new normal’ and according to a report of Autonomy, an independent think tank focusing on the future of work, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an “epidemic of hidden overtime”. The report goes on to state that unpaid labour is becoming an increasing problem in light of home working and that this is particularly impacting women’s mental health.

Whilst there are some benefits of home-working, individuals are increasingly finding it difficult to find a balance between home and work life. Some countries such as Ireland and Canada have recognised this as a problem and are currently considering or have introduced measures to protect employee’s well-being and this has been referred to as the ‘right to disconnect’.

What is the ‘right to disconnect’?

The ‘right to disconnect’ would provide employees with a legal right to not have to work outside their normal agreed hours. This would include not requiring employees to be in contact or being expected to check their emails outside their working hours.

Autonomy have proposed draft legislation to create a ‘right to disconnect’ which is based on French law and provides that employees are not required to take calls or read emails related to work whilst they are not working.

The proposal calls for two amendments to the Employment Rights Act 1996. Firstly, to allow workers the right to fully disconnect from work communications outside of their working hours and secondly, to be able to bring employment tribunal claims for the breach of the above.

The report goes on to propose that a ‘right to disconnect’ should be introduced in the UK as an “opt out legal requirement” however employers should have to demonstrate that they have good reasons for ‘opting out’.

There are, however, concerns that enforcement of such a requirement is likely to be difficult in the UK as it has no formal system of labour inspection and therefore in order to enforce such a right, individuals would be required to make a claim to the Employment Tribunal.

How can employers support employees to disconnect from work?

There is no single solution that will be appropriate for all employers, as to impose a blanket ban on out-of-hours communications could be detrimental for some business. That said, over-worked employees are rarely the most productive, and we would encourage employers to actively think about how they can support their employees and they may consider the following:

  • Be clear on what is expected from your employees during this ‘new normal’ and highlight the importance of taking breaks, refraining from checking emails outside of agreed working hours and promoting a clear divide between work and personal life.
  • Consider arranging for managers to have regular check in calls with their team/individuals to assess work capacity and reiterate the message regarding work/life balance.
  • Take active steps to ensure adequate cover is in place during an employee’s annual leave to avoid the employee being disturbed during this period.
  • Monitor out of hours communications and raise concerns where appropriate. Employers should, however, approach this carefully and not make assumptions, as there may be reasons for employees working out of hours such as due to childcare. An open discussion should ensure that employees know that their employer is aware of any such pressures.

If you are an employer and considering introducing a “right to disconnect” policy our specialist employment lawyers can help. They have many years’ of experience advising businesses on employment contracts and policies. If you require our advice, please call us on 0808 252 5231 or request a call back online at your convenience.