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Employment law for employees & Employment law for employers

Right to disconnect – will this become a new legal right?

For the majority of the Covid-19 pandemic the government has urged employees to work from home if they can. Whilst there are undoubtedly benefits to working from home, people are finding it more and more difficult to strike a sustainable balance between home and work life.

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A recent poll by Opinium showed that about 35% of remote workers said their work-related mental health had worsened during the pandemic. 30% of those surveyed said they were working more unpaid hours than before, with 18% reporting at least four additional unpaid hours a week.

This poses the question: ‘should employees have a new legal ‘right to disconnect’?’.

What is the ‘right to disconnect’?

The ‘right to disconnect’ would give employees a legal right not to have to work routinely outside their normal hours. This would include not expecting employees to check emails in the evenings and during weekends, and not expecting employees to work longer days just because there is no daily commute.

When could the right come into force?

In the Queen’s speech in December 2019 the government promised that it would propose a new Employment Bill, and it is expected that this will materialise at some point this year. Darren Jones MP, Chair of the Commons Business Select Committee, commented that this bill ‘provides just the opportunity’ to reassess employment laws and ensure they are in step with modern working practices.

If the UK workforce is given a ‘right to disconnect’ it is likely that it would be enshrined in that bill as the government comes under increased pressure from unions to include such a provision.

What is the rest of the world doing?

The right to disconnect is not a new concept and other countries have already implemented the right.

Earlier this month (April 2021) Ireland introduced a right to disconnect with the deputy Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, commenting that although much of the pandemic has been negative there is a ‘an opportunity to make permanent changes for the better’ and improve the work-life balance for everyone.

Canada is looking into a similar policy, but with a particular focus on the benefit for female workers who spend approximately a third more time than men on unpaid work. It is thought that the right to disconnect could therefore promote gender equality in Canada as women are less available to work outside their usual office hours than men.

Perhaps most notably, the EU Parliament voted overwhelming in January 2021 in favour of a resolution calling on the European Commission to propose a law allowing those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours. Although we are now out of the EU, it could still be a good indication of what the UK government is likely to do.

Our thoughts

Enshrining the right to disconnect in law would, we hope, encourage employers to take the work-life balance seriously – not least because there would be a risk of Employment Tribunal claims if the employer ignores this right.

Whilst this could be valuable for many workers changes will not happen overnight. Plenty of employers have dodged the EU recommended ‘48 hour working week’ by asking employees to ‘opt out’ and there has been some suggestion that this right will be scrapped now we are out of the EU.

However, in our view, it would be prudent for employers to consider how best to encourage their workforce get some downtime when working remotely with or without legislative impetus. Don’t forget that contractual core hours are still enshrined within most employment contracts and employers owe a duty to provide a safe working environment. Showing some consideration towards employees will also mean they are less likely to vote with their feet and go elsewhere.

If you have any questions about working from home or any other employment related queries the Collyer Bristow Employment Team is on hand to help.

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Tania Goodman

Partner - Head of Employment

tania.goodman@collyerbristow.com