The pandemic has changed the way in which we live and work and while many wish to retain the benefits of home working – flexibility, no commute and more time at home with family – others have struggled to keep home and work life separate.

When working from home, the office can more easily encroach on home life and checking e-mails at 7am or making last minute changes to a presentation at midnight has become common place over the last 18 months. Burnout has been the remote-working ‘word-of-the-day’ and is a reaction to prolonged or chronic work-related stress.

Polling by Group Risk Development revealed that four in five people reported having health and wellbeing concerns and while the largest proportion said stress and anxiety had risen as a direct result of the pandemic, the second largest contributing factor was related to work. So, how do we retain the benefits of working from home whilst ensuring it doesn’t have a sustained impact on our mental health?

It is accepted that the way we were working prior to the pandemic was not the best model for optimum mental health at work either, with 17.9 million working days lost to poor mental health in 2019/2020 according to statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive in November 2020. The general consensus for many employers is that a blended approach to office-base and home-based working is the best way forward, and we are seeing this being put into practice already across the UK.

Confronting ‘always-on’ culture

In a bid to tackle ‘always-on’ culture, Ireland is attempting to protect the work-life balance with a Covid-19-conscious Code of Practice which includes a ‘right to disconnect’. The Code defines the ‘right to disconnect’ as (i) the right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside of normal working hours; (ii) the right to not be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; and (iii) the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect. The Code recommends that employers implement a Right to Disconnect Policy and provides best practice guidance for managers and staff.

There are calls for a similar right to be introduced in the UK, with a recent Opinium poll suggesting that two-thirds of those currently working remotely supported the policy and wanted the UK to follow Ireland’s lead in supporting employees’ work-life balance. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy confirmed that when the employment bill, which was promised in the government’s last Queen’s speech, is introduced, it will include measures to help people balance work with their personal lives. But will this be enough?

While the creation of a culture in which employees feel that they can disconnect from work and work-related devices without fear seems like a logical step, the question remains how this will work in practice. Will it be effective enough to help employees demarcate their personal life and work life with confidence? Measures that could be taken by employers include training for managers and new recruits to reinforce the appropriate behaviours, implementing e-mail footers and pop-up messages to remind e-mail recipients of the sender’s normal working hours, and establishing a monitoring committee to oversee the implementation of the Right to Disconnect Policy and encourage any necessary cultural changes.

One size doesn’t fit all

The main criticism of the Code is that the right to log off seems incompatible with having the ability to choose different working hours each day. The flexibility of working at home could be diminished if employees are required to log-off at a certain time, or if their ability to be online outside of ‘normal working hours’ is restricted or limited in some way.

In addition, if employees are always offline outside of normal working hours, employers may demand absolute availability during normal working hours, taking away any flexibility not agreed through formal arrangements. With that in mind, the Code may work best for those companies with more rigid normal working hours.

It’s clear that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The ‘right to disconnect’ may prove to be an effective tool in protecting an employee’s work-life balance and in turn an employee’s mental health, but it will need to be carefully balanced against the needs of both the employee and employer to ensure it has its intended effect.

This article was first published in The Herald Scotland.