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working

Published: 27 January 2017
Area of Law: Employment

Should UK workers have a ‘right to disconnect’?

In an attempt to free workers from the ‘always on’ demands of the modern workplace, the French government has introduced a new law permitting them to turn off their smartphones and ignore work-related emails when they are not at work.

The ‘right to disconnect’  legislation, which took effect on 1st January 2017, affects businesses with 50 or more employees and aims to encourage workers to take proper breaks and promote better work-life balance.

The number of tribunal hearings in the UK where work-related stress is mentioned has increased significantly in recent years and employers are understandably concerned about the effects this could be having on workplace productivity.

The widespread use of smartphones and the ability to access work-related email accounts and shared drives remotely mean workers are enjoying less downtime. Many feel that they have to respond to out-of-hours customer requests.

Working Time Regulations – the ‘opt out’

The Working Time Regulations 1998 are intended to protect the health and safety of workers by making sure they take adequate rest. In France, the equivalent legislation specifies that the default working week should not last more than 35 hours. In the UK the maximum number of hours that can be worked in a week is 48. However, widespread use of an ‘opt out’ clause by UK employers means many employees can work for longer if they wish.

To discourage over-use of digital devices, some employers are taking steps to discourage employees from responding to work-related emails out-of-hours. For example, senior managers may be asked to avoid issuing instructions to staff after the end of the working day, or over the weekend.

A blanket ‘right to disconnect’ is unlikely
Placing a blanket ban preventing workers from accessing their inboxes or communicating with a client out-of-hours may not be practical or realistic.

However, some employers are introducing novel policies to encourage workers to take a proper break during their annual leave. German automotive company, Daimler, permits employees to set an out-of-office message on their email inbox when they go on holiday, which informs the sender that their message is being deleted and advises them to contact another member of the team. Other businesses prefer to apply restrictions preventing individual employees from accessing their inboxes remotely during holidays lasting two weeks or more, in order to encourage them to take a complete break. In such cases, a system is usually put in place allowing the employer to contact the employee in case of an emergency.

Encourage more rest and play for a happy workforce

Even though a blanket ‘right to disconnect’ is unlikely to be introduced for UK workers, employers should do what they can to look out for problems that can arise from excessive use of digital devices. They should encourage all workers to use their downtime for more rest and play, not more work.

"This is exactly why we like to work with people who understand the industry and can identify potential issues and create solutions."

Jon Saltinstall, Senior HealthCare Banking Consultant, Lloyds Bank