A new way of working
COVID-19 has increased the number of employees in the UK who work from home. It has shown many industries that certain work is capable of being done remotely, which is likely to change the way many businesses operate indefinitely.
The way that most people used to work; the standard Monday to Friday in the office, is considered by many to be a thing of the past. Although there are businesses that have disputed this reality, i.e. Goldman Sachs, the truth is many companies have thrived in the pandemic – not only safeguarding jobs but by also increasing demand by encouraging new ways of working. It has also encouraged employees to take time to reflect on what is important to them – time on the daily commute v more time at home or just more time to do other things. Many employers have embraced this and will offer their employees flexible working arrangements, allowing them to manage their time between both their homes and in the office.
Although home working comes with many benefits; the avoidance of commuting; giving people “extra time” in the morning and evening; and, allowing families to spend more time with one another (some may dispute this perk), reports have found that this has in fact resulted in many employees working extra hours. This appears to be the result of the blurring between work and personal life, not helped by the fact that for many ‘work’ and home’ are the same four walls. This has had the effect of creating an ‘always on’ culture. A study has found that almost a half of the employees surveyed struggle to fully switch off from work. Although some employers may find this new reality attractive, essentially having their employees always available to them, this comes with many drawbacks and these may be considered to be the ‘dark side’ of homeworking.
According to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), this increase of working hours has led to more cases of anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental and health issues. This, in addition to the hardships that the pandemic has caused, particularly to our social relationships, has caused many to argue that Government intervention is required through the implementation of a “right to disconnect” into UK employment law.
What does “a right to disconnect” mean? It essentially means that once an employee’s working hours have finished they should not be expected to work outside their hours, by taking phone calls or responding to emails, or any other forms of communication. Although many companies encourage employees not to check their emails during out of office hours, and during their annual leave, reports have found that employees still feel the pressure and expectation to check their emails, preventing them from truly turning off and recharging by engaging in social and leisure activities.
The idea of having a right to disconnect is not new and something similar has been implemented on the continent. France implemented a right to disconnect law in 2017, which has been found to increase morale in the workplace and bring attention to the mental health of employees. In January 2021, the European Parliament voted in favour for the right to disconnect to become a fundamental human right and therefore called to the European Commission to propose legislation on the subject. So if Europe can do it, why can’t the UK do the same?
UK Employment law
Many are sceptical that the UK will adopt a right to disconnect. This is particularly so given reports that, post Brexit, the UK is set to scrap many EU employment rules that it was forced to implement, such as the 48 hour limit on the working week. Furthermore, many have argued that COVID will not in fact change the way we in the UK work indefinitely and that things will likely go back to normal in a couple of years: normal being ‘back to the office’.
The argument however is how will employees react to this, given the taste of freedom that homeworking has given them and the proof that they are more than capable of doing their work from home. Therefore it is likely that employees will fight to maintain some level of flexible working in their employment. If faced with the return of 5 day weeks in the office, employers will more than likely receive an influx of flexibility working requests. The UK government has already committed itself to making flexible working the default position.
Therefore, the next step to comfortably adapt to this new way of working is arguably allowing employees to take back control of their work/life balance. This is through giving them the right to disconnect. As Alex Aguis Saliba, MEP, stated following the European Parliament vote:
“It is time to update worker’s rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age”.
If employees are not given the legal right to do this, there are other ways that employers can begin to implement this right– such as through their internal processes. It is important to remember that employers are still currently bound by working time and health and safety rules. This includes the duty for employers to provide employees with rest breaks, holiday and carry out risk assessments to assess the risks of work-related stress and take measures or steps to control and reduce these risks.
Employers could implement policies which could involve them engaging with their employees privately and taking measures to ensure that employees truly disconnect once their working hours are completed and particularly when they are on annual leave. Such policies could include the monitoring of out of hours communication and ensuring that sufficient handovers are given when an employee goes on annual leave, reducing the risk of their holidays being interrupted.
Although such internal measures are not binding and would not hold the same weight as what a legal duty on the employer to ensure their employees disconnect would do, this is arguably a step in the right direction to align our employment law with those in Europe in this area, who are arguably enjoying the benefits that the right to disconnect has given them. What benefits we hear you ask? Well, to start with their life expectancies have proven to be higher….
Click here for the research of 2,000 UK employees working in organisations with over 1,000 employees, conducted on behalf of Aviva by Quadrangle conducted in February 2020, and repeated in August 2020
Get in touch
For more information on this update, please contact Jon Taylor.
This article was prepared by Maryam Mouzaoui.