Technology now enables us to work, respond to emails or take calls out of office hours far more easily. The negatives of this 'always on' culture are starting to be recognised; how should employers respond?
As we head back to the daily grind following the Christmas break, we may be dreading ploughing through the backlog of emails waiting in our inboxes - or maybe not if we have been logging on during the holidays?
From 1 January 2017, employees in France are no longer obliged to respond to emails out of office hours as France has enacted a new employment law which enables employees to legitimately not deal with any communication received outside of their contractual working hours.
In addition, companies employing at least 50 employees will have an obligation to put in place a charter which provides specific training on the reasonable use of IT devices and the rights that employees have out of work hours.
Overuse of digital devices for work purposes is blamed for affecting sleeping habits, causing stress and anxiety and negatively impacting emotional well-being.
The stated aim of the French legislation is to allow employees the 'right to disconnect' if they choose to do so and to restore the balance between employees' work life and personal life.
However, there is no legal obligation upon an employee to actually disconnect and there are no express legal penalties for employers breaching these obligations. It therefore remains to be seen how effective this new law in France will be in changing behaviour and culture.
Should the UK follow suit?
While the concept of the 'right to disconnect' appears to be aimed at improving employee health and wellbeing, whether it fits in with modern work practices is debatable. In any event, it seems unlikely that the UK's legislative timetable, let alone the political will, would allow for a similar law to be passed in the UK anytime soon.
Technology was supposed to set us free, giving employees the autonomy and flexibility to work in ways and at times which best suited them and their lifestyle. However, for this to work, digital devices demand discipline from users, and many employees just can't switch off.
Employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees and so should consider whether any employee's use of digital devices might suggest they are working excessively.
Expectations need to be managed and employers should communicate clearly with employees about what is expected of them both in and out of the workplace. The answer might be for employers to actively encourage staff not to respond to emails at certain times. This will depend on each employer's business needs and these will doubtless vary from sector to sector and internally between different roles.
As more employers actively embrace agile/flexible working involving less structured working hours together with increasing access to communication technology and with less immediate oversight by management and a blurring of the lines between work lives and personal lives, it seems that employees in the UK who want to exercise a 'right to disconnect' will probably find it increasingly harder to do so.