Employment Law and Unpaid Work – Do we need the right to disconnect?

In a recent interview, the Labor leadership candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, called for workers to be given the “right to disconnect”, allowing people to ignore work e-mails, calls and messages outside their working hours. She wants to end the “24/7 work culture” which is now ingrained in many industries, and safeguard workers’ mental health.

The idea of digital wellness is not new – there is an industry dedicated to digital detox, from retreats to apps which monitor and prompt less screen time, all trying to helping us regain control of our own time. At the same time, with increasingly hyper-connected workplaces, it is increasingly common for workers to be issued with laptops and mobiles, allowing for flexible working but also an increasing expectation to respond outside working hours.

Whilst a legal right to switch off is a recent proposal in the UK, it is not new internationally. In France, the right to disconnect has been in effect since January 2017 for companies with more than 50 employees. Known as the ‘El Khomri law’, it obliges employers to negotiate with employees the specifics on the required use of telecommunication tools. If an agreement is not reached, employers must publish a charter making clear what it expects of employees out-of-hours to implement the right to disconnect. Under Italian law there is a requirement for employers to explain how responsive employees need to be outside normal office hours. In Spain, since late 2018 there is a right to disconnect during holidays and resting periods enshrined in law. There is similar right to disconnect proposals being discussed internationally, including India, Canada, the Netherlands and even New York City.

Do we need the right to disconnect in the UK?

On 1 March 2019, the Trades Union Congress issued a statistical analysis showing:

  • UK companies claimed £32.7 billion of free labor in 2018 because of workers’ doing unpaid overtime;
  • More than 5 million UK workers put in a total of two billion unpaid hours in 2018; 
  • The average person doing unpaid overtime had worked the year (1 January to 1 March 2019) for free.

In addition, research has shown connections between workloads and sick days, with 8.6 million people in the UK taking sick days in 2019 because they found their jobs ‘too painful’, whilst 12 million workers went into work whilst genuinely sick.

Whilst these statistics do not bode well for UK employers, workers in the UK already have extensive rights enshrined in law, covering matters from limits on weekly working hours, rest breaks and holidays, to having their health and safety protected at work. Most employees will not be under any legal obligation to respond to work e-mails outside office hours, but it is the culture and expectation to respond that any such legislation would seek to tackle.

In light of international trends, it is likely that at some point, legislation to this effect will be introduced in the UK. What is clear is that a uniform approach to such a right will not work in the UK – some employers will need to have employees accessible outside of normal working hours. Conversely, encouraging employees to not answer emails after working hours might force them to stay in the office later. In practical terms, the right to disconnect would lead to enforcement issues – employers could call an employee’s personal device instead.

We advise employers and employees on all aspects of employment law. If you have any concerns or need to put in place a policy setting out what you expect of employees outside of normal working hours, please get in touch today on 0203 146 3549 / e:mail: [email protected].

Disclaimer

All our articles are intended for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information provided.

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