Calls for ‘right to disconnect’ in the UK

Out-Law News | 22 Apr 2021 | 2:10 pm |

Kate Dodd tells HRNews about the prospect of a workers’ right to ‘switch off’ from work

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  • Transcript

    The trade unions are calling for a new legal right for employees to disconnect from work. The engineers and scientists union, Prospect, is the latest union lobbying for workers’ right to ‘switch off’ to be included in the upcoming employment bill – the bill was first introduced back in December 2019 but has been delayed because of the pandemic. People Management reports on this and quotes the union saying it would tackle the ‘dark side of remote working’ as blurred boundaries between home and work significantly impact mental health. They cite a poll of over 2,000 people which found 66 per cent would back a policy that gave them the legal right to switch off.

    Ireland is a step ahead on this. The country’s Workplace Relations Commission published a code of practice on the right to disconnect which came into effect on 1 April. It has three main strands – the right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours; the right to not be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours, and a duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect. The code complements and supports employers’ and employees’ rights and obligations which exist under current employment legislation in Ireland. It recognises that a joint approach is required in order to create a culture in which employees feel that they can disconnect from work and work-related devices. A number of other EU countries have similar arrangements in place. So, let’s consider how this might operate in the UK. Kate Dodd joined me by video-link from Manchester to discuss the issue which, she told me, is not a new idea:

    Kate Dodd: “It's an interesting one, Joe, because actually this has been a real issue for a long time. Businesses have been looking at this, I think, for probably more than 10 years now and as, of course, technology has moved on, so have people's use of technology, habits, etcetera and, of course, bad habits have formed around that. So, I do think this has been an issue for a long time but I agree with you that the pandemic has definitely accelerated this. I think people find it harder to switch off now than they ever have done before. I certainly have noticed that people don't take a lunch time anymore and actually that's something that we as a business have started to really kind of try and turn the tide on since January. So we have actively had to try and introduce a lunch hour because the fact of the matter is that people are not going out for lunch, they're not leaving their homes in the mornings to travel to work or, vice versa, to go home and therefore they're considered to be always available and, of course, what that does is it leads to people being always on, and this phrase that I hear, which I think describes it very well of, ‘I'm not working from home, I'm sleeping at work’.”

    Joe Glavina: “People Management makes a good point, Kate. They point out the direct link between an employee’s burn-out and the employer’s failure to manage their work properly. So, there’s a role for HR here, clearly.”
     
    Kate Dodd: “Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is definitely an issue for HR. We know that burnout is a medical condition and it's clear that it's to do with a failure to manage stress in the workplace and that management definitely doesn't sit with the employee alone. I mean, of course, it's up to everybody to look after their own mental health and well-being but, of course, an employer has a huge role to play in that and if an individual does burnout, and if an individual is unable to work, then of course the tribunal, ultimately, if somebody then suffers an injury, because of that, if they've become unwell, their mental health is impacted, or indeed, their physical health is impacted in such a way that they suffer from an injury, the court are going to be looking at that to say well what did the employer do? It’s not enough just to say to people we encourage you to adopt good habits, and we encourage you to switch off, there needs to be some data behind that to back that up and employers need to be actively understanding and talking to their people about the habits that they have and how regularly they're working beyond what the what they will be considered to be reasonably doing, how often they are struggling to disconnect, all of those types of things need to be something that the employer is actively aware of, data that they can get their hands on.”

    Joe Glavina: “One of the snags with managing home workers is knowing when they’re working, because they’re at home obviously, so they are far less visible. So, it depends on employees letting management know when they are working. So, it’s a two-way street if you like.”

    Kate Dodd: “Yes absolutely. I mean, I think you're absolutely right, it has to be a two way street. Employers have to be asking the question, though, and I think quite often, particularly when it's busy, it becomes something that people forget to ask about, or don't necessarily want to ask about. So, let’s say there’s a deadline looming, a manager will probably themselves be under a huge amount of pressure as well and it becomes just an accepted thing. I think the real danger is actually where managers aren't aware of what an individual is doing. So they might think, well, it's convenient for them to have a call with their team every morning at 8am and they might not realise that there is someone else in the business who thinks it's convenient to have a call every night at 7pm and somebody else who thinks it's great to have a working lunch, and then that individual, who's on the receiving end of course, might quite quickly end up in a situation where they have absolutely no time to switch off and we know that has really significant effects on mental health as well as physical health, musculoskeletal, conditions of the spine, all sorts of things that are impacted by this fact that people are so connected to their screens.”

    Joe Glavina: “Finally Kate, I know Pinsent Masons as a firm has been actively involved in setting up the Mindful Business Charter. Tell me about that.”

    Kate Dodd: “Yes, this absolutely sits squarely as to why we first came up with the idea along with Barclays and Addleshaw Goddard for the Mindful Business Charter. That was back in 2017 back in the day when the thought of a global pandemic would be the thing of science fiction, but we knew back then that something had to change, we knew back then that there was a one way march in the wrong direction and that we were losing really good talented people from our businesses and also that we were not attracting talent in the same way that we that we used to, and that we wanted to, because, quite frankly, graduates and talent that's coming up through businesses look at professional services quite often and they say well why would I want that kind of life for myself? We know that everyone's approach to work is different, we know that from a generational perspective younger people want experiences, they don't necessarily feel so motivated by big salaries or final salary pension schemes etcetera, which of course now are a thing of the past. So, we were already looking at this and saying to ourselves we need to do something here to reverse this one way march. The fact that you can be constantly contactable, the fact that you carry around your computer in your pocket on holiday in the evening, at the weekend, doesn't mean that you should therefore always be connected and somewhere along the line we started to mistake availability with dedication and loyalty. You know, somebody might be very ineffective, they might have really poor time management, but as long as they're always available, as long as you’ve messaged them and they message you back within two minutes we then started to mistake that for a great performer or somebody who was really dedicated and we stopped remembering, of course, that everybody has got different things going on, and that some people for some people that need to disconnect is absolutely crucial. So that's exactly what the Mindful Business Charter is all about. It's just a set of principles that can be applied by every business in their own way to start to kind of reintroduce wellbeing and basically bring back humanity into the workplace. That's exactly the essence of it.”

    If the Mindful Business Charter is something that interests you then you can read more about it – it has its own website with a long list of signatories now signed up. It’s built on 4 pillars – openness and respect, smart meetings and emails, respecting rest periods and mindful delegation. We have put to the website in the transcript of this programme.

    LINKS
    - Link to the Mindful Business Charter