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Employees must have the right to disconnect from work, says UK union

Should the UK follow in the footsteps of Ireland and Canada and mandate staff time to switch off from work?

Allie Nawrat

Credit: Benicat via Twenty20.

Unleash Your Workforce UK union Prospect is calling for employees to have the right to disconnect from work.

  • Prospect, a UK trade union representing specialists, wants UK employees to have the right to disconnect from work and a work-life balance
  • If the UK did introduce this as part of the Employment Bill, then it would be following the example of Ireland and Canada.
  • Here’s everything you need to know.

UK trade union Prospect has called on the UK government to introduce a right to disconnect from work as part of the upcoming Employment Bill.

The Bill is expected to be included in the May 2021 Queen’s speech that sets the agenda for the next parliamentary session.

A right to disconnect would legally require companies to negotiate and agree with staff rules about when employees cannot be contacted for work purposes.

This push from Prospect comes on the back of polling carried out by Opinium that found that 66% of those working remotely now would support this policy.

Also, 32% of the 4,005 UK nationals surveyed in April 2021 said they were finding it difficult to switch off from work, while 30% noted they were working more unpaid hours than in pre-pandemic times.

Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect, which represents specialist workers like scientists, tech experts, and engineers, said:

“Remote working is here to stay, but it can be much better than it has been in recent months.

“Including a right to disconnect in the Employment Bill would big a big step in redrawing the blurred boundary between home and work and would show that the government is serious about tackling the dark side of remote working.”

In a statement shared with the Guardian, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy said: “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.”

[Read more: Employers take note: You need to do more to support mental wellbeing]

The ‘dark side’ of remote working

While the pandemic has created a productivity boom for some, COVID-19 has had a serious impact on many people’s mental health. In fact, stress and burnout are at an all-time high.

Prospect’s Opinium survey found that 35% of remote workers said their work-related mental health had declined in the pandemic — with 42% saying this was linked with their inability to effectively switch off from work.

“It is clear that for millions of us, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, with remote technology meaning it is harder to fully switch off, contributing to poor mental health,” stated Pakes.

Prospect is also concerned about increased employee monitoring – an issue which fellow UK union the TUC raised in March — as well as how, as the world of work moves towards a hybrid model, remote workers could become discriminated against and overlooked for promotions.

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy added: “The rise in remote monitoring and fears about discrimination against home workers show that government, businesses, and unions need to carefully work through the issues that long-term remote working brings or risk sleepwalking into a new dystopia for millions of workers.”

[Read more: Reid Hoffman: Remote staff mustn’t become second class citizens.]

Following Ireland and Canada

In implementing a right to disconnect, the UK could follow in the footsteps of the Irish.

Earlier in April, the Irish government announced a change to the official code of practice that gave employees the ability to switch off from work.

The updated code of practice gives employees the right to “not routinely perform work outside normal working hours” and “to not be penalized for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours”, as well as “the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect” by not emailing or calling outside of office hours.

While announcing the new right to disconnect, former Irish prime minister and current deputy prime minister and minister for enterprise, trade, and employment Leo Varadkar said: “The code of practice comes into effect immediately and applies to all types of employment, whether you are working remotely or not. It will help employees, no matter what their job is, to strike a better work-life balance and switch off from work outside of their normal working hours.”

Canada is also considering doing the same and the government has begun a public consultation on the subject of the right to disconnect.

The minister for labor Filomena Tassi wrote in a call for engagement with the consultation: “Modern digital communications are changing the way we work, and the pace of these changes is increasing as they become more powerful and permit us to achieve more in our work each day.

“Part of our work will be to co-develop a policy with federally regulated employers and labor organizations that gives federally regulated workers the “right to disconnect,” to support their work-life balance and well-being.”

Tassi is particularly concerned about how the need to be constantly online may be disproportionately affecting the female workforce, who are less likely to be available after working hours because of household and caring responsibilities.

Work-life balance is crucial not only for productivity at work, but also for good mental health and wellbeing. As the world moves out of the pandemic and the hybrid future of work comes to fruition, now is the perfect time for everyone to think about how to tackle burnout and restore a better relationship between work and free time.

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