While the pandemic and the requirement to "work from home if you can" have brought greater flexibility to many, there have also been many reports of a "decrease in work-life balance", and an inability to truly "disconnect" from the job outside working hours. As we move forward into a hybrid working model, we explore how employees can be supported with their "right to disconnect", and why this is so important.

Establishing a work-life balance (especially when the majority of us were balancing our time between home and the office) has proven increasingly difficult over the last 18 months. Over the years, governments have attempted to bring in legislation to aid the work-life balance and "right to disconnect". However, regulating working conditions is increasingly difficult in light of remote or hybrid working. This has led to an increased focus from some governments and employers on how to implement successful "right to disconnect" policies.

Different countries have taken different approaches on implementing "right to disconnect" policies and this was on some governments' agendas even before the pandemic began. Since 2016, France, Italy and Spain have all introduced legislation which grants workers the right not to respond to work-related communications after their core hours and prohibits them being penalised for this. In Germany, changes have been implemented by companies rather than law, with stakeholders of key German companies entering into negotiations about what policies to implement to ensure employees feel able to disconnect.

In light of the pandemic and the shift to remote working, workers and employees are calling for greater change, both in policies and in attitudes to their work-life balance. Rather than more restrictive rules about when to log on and off and when to respond to work-based communications, many employees want the freedom to work their own hours around other commitments, such as childcare.

Ireland has recently brought in legislation covering the "right to disconnect" with a specific code developed to protect all workers, including those who work remotely. There are three key rights established through this code:

  • workers are entitled to not perform work or attend work matters outside their normal working hours;
  • workers have a right not to suffer a detriment for refusing to attend work matters outside their normal working hours; and
  • workers and employers have a duty to respect their colleagues' "right to disconnect", including not responding to emails when they are not working.

The code also covers workers in different time zones and acknowledges that some colleagues may be uncontactable at certain times of the day or have different working hours. It stipulates that working hours are not specifically defined or codified and introduces training for HR and managers to aid their understanding of how to implement the "right to disconnect" successfully.

The "right to disconnect" goes beyond recognising that employees should not be contacted whatever the time. The "right to disconnect", as demonstrated through the Irish code, not only removes the need for immediate response, but also protects workers against any detriment for being unreachable. Instead of management simply not expecting a response from workers outside normal working hours, workers are actively encouraged not to respond outside their regular hours.

The "right to disconnect" can benefit both individual employees and organisations as a whole. Establishing an effective work-life balance for employees is likely to reduce staff burn-out and overload, leading to a more productive workforce during working hours. The reduced pressure may have further benefits such as higher staff retention rates and increased employee morale, as well as a feeling from employees that their mental health is recognised and supported by their employer.

Employers should take care not to become too prescriptive in any new rules or policies which establish a "right to disconnect" in their workplace. In limiting employees' hours or the times during which employees are contactable, employers run the risk of curtailing the flexibility provided by remote working. This could have as negative an impact on employees as the impact of "burn-out" and failing to disconnect. Employers should approach calls for rapid, unilateral changes with care.

Conclusion

The UK government has not yet indicated that it will introduce any laws or regulations which specifically focus on the "right to disconnect". Despite this, it is still an important area for organisations to consider, and evaluate how they can implement their own policies to ensure their employees are able to "disconnect" while maintaining a degree of flexibility. This may be through adopting similar directions to those in the Irish code, or by following examples that many employers within the UK have already chosen to adopt in their organisation, such as removing the "online" email status symbol past certain hours.