UK government urged to give home workers the ‘right to disconnect’

As Ireland gives all employees a legal "right to disconnect," burnt-out remote workers in the UK are urging the government to follow suit.

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Home-based workers in the UK want greater protections from workplace stresses via a "right to disconnect," according to recent polls, a reflection of shifting work-life balance concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the UK slowly eases itself out of lockdown, a large proportion of office workers expect to split their time between working from home and the office and want to see safeguards against workplace stress that has led to widespread reports of burnout.

A study from October, commissioned by the flexible workplace provider The Office Group, found that more than half (51%) of the 2,000 UK workers surveyed said they had been working outside of their typical hours since lockdown, with the average British worker putting in an extra 59 hours of work at home — the equivalent of seven working days, over the last five months.

This latest poll, carried out by Opinium for professionals' union Prospect, found that two-thirds (66%) of employees want a right to disconnect policy included alongside a number of employment reforms influenced by the impact of COVID-19 on the UK's work economy.

These include plans to make flexible work a default option for all advertised jobs, giving employees greater freedom around how they split their time between the office and home.

Responses to the survey of 2,428 people – including 617 who are normally office-based – flagged recurring concerns about an inability to switch off. “I feel like I am living from work rather than working from home,” one respondent said.  “I enjoy working from home but because I have no change of environment it can be hard to forget about work tasks,” said another.

About 35% of remote workers also said their work-related mental health had worsened during the pandemic, 30% said they were working more unpaid hours than before, and 18% reported working at least four additional unpaid hours a week.

The right to disconnect

The right to disconnect is not a new concept. Alan Price, CEO at BrightHR, an HR software and employment law advice firm, said the idea originated in 2018 in France, where employees have this right — and companies must take steps to implement it.

The coronavirus pandemic has put the focus back on the rights of at-home workers. As of April 1, all employees in Ireland now have the right to disconnect under an official code of practice drawn up by the country’s Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). The policy applies to all workers, regardless of whether they work remotely or in an office.

The Canadian government has also established a Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee, consulting with unions and business leaders to develop rules that would enable employees disengage after regular working hours.

Price said that while it remains to be seen what a right to disconnect would look like in the UK, “fundamentally, it is understood as a period of time in which an individual working from home is not permitted to be contacted by the company for the purposes of work.

“The aim is to stop significant work being done out of hours now [that] it is much easier for staff to do so as a result of remote working,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy promised improvements for workers. “The employment bill, when introduced, will deliver the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation, including measures that will help people to balance work with their personal lives.”

Current work-from-home provisions

The right to work from home did exist in the UK before the pandemic, largely through the right to flexible working, which all employees could request after they had been with a company for at least 26 weeks.

But, Price said, companies can refuse these requests if they have sound business reasons to do so, leaving the balance of whether staff can work from home and how this should be managed still very much in favour of employers.

He said that although there were talks of making homeworking a lawful right for employees last year, that died down when the government in England moved last summer to get staff back into the office.

“Despite guidance changing again since then due to further lockdowns, conversations around a clearer right to work from home did not return with this,” Price said.

It's unclear how the government might change and enforce new laws. If any such rights are enacted, it’s likely they will be accompanied by a Code of Practice, which afford employers some flexibility when introducing the measures to the workplace. Enforcement could mirror current work from home legislation, where sanctions are proportionate to the severity of the employer’s breach.

Price said one area the new employment bill could cover is an expanded right to flexible working. However, whether the government will make this a day-one right or make it more difficult for employers to refuse such a request remains unknown.

“Certainly, it can be hoped that the government will take an expected increase in the number of staff working from home into account as it seeks to legislate for the future,” he said.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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