In theory, working from home should improve your work-life balance. In reality, though, many of us who have swapped our offices for our kitchens during the pandemic have ended up spending longer at our desks and more time answering out-of-hours emails. The boundaries between our professional and personal lives are becoming increasingly blurry, leading to stress, exhaustion and burnout.
Simply putting your laptop or phone away after hours is easier said than done, however. Job insecurity – and the urge to prove your worth by being available 24/7 – means we feel pressure to put in excessive overtime. To counter this always-on, hustle culture, some countries are implementing "right to disconnect" legislation to allow people to log off from their jobs without being penalised.
In the UK, the union Prospect – which represents scientists, engineers, civil servants and other specialists – has called for companies to be legally required to bring in rules on when people can’t be contacted for work. Advocates argue the right to disconnect should be enshrined in law to protect the mental health of a new generation of remote workers, who find it even harder to separate their work and personal lives. It also allows companies to fulfil their duty of care to staff.
“It is becoming harder for workers to switch off from work,” Prospect said. “Remote working has accelerated the trend towards longer working hours, significantly increasing the risk of stress and burnout, and digital technology means that it is easier to be contacted and reminded about work out of hours. Right to disconnect is becoming a reality in countries from France to the Philippines and Argentina to Ireland – it’s time the UK caught up and now is the time for us to act.”
Earlier this year, Ireland brought in a code of practice which recommends employers take practical measures to help workers switch off. “Consider the use of measures such as email footers and pop-up messages to remind employees, and customers, that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours and an answer should not be expected,” the document reads. “Also, the use of delay send options should be utilised where appropriate.”
Other countries have brought in similar legislation. In 2016, French employees won the legal right to avoid out-of-hours work emails when the so-called "right to disconnect" law was introduced. Advocates of the move said employees who are expected to check and reply to their emails outside of work were not being paid fairly for their overtime – and that doing so carried a risk of stress, burnout and relationship problems.
Over the past 20 years, German companies have also made moves to protect workers’ ability to log off. Volkswagen, Daimler and Siemens all implemented company agreements to help employees switch off, with Volkswagen putting a freeze on worker emails between 6.15pm and 7am. In 2014, Daimler set up an optional service for staff going on holiday. Instead of the usual “out of office” reply to emails, they could choose to have all new emails automatically deleted.
However, one-size-fits-all policies can be problematic. In 2019, researchers from the University of Sussex suggested policies that restrict email access outside of the workday or on weekends could negatively impact workers’ wellbeing, particularly those with “high levels of anxiety and neuroticism”. While some people find these interventions helpful, they can trigger additional stress for others.
Moreover, the shift towards flexible working means workers want more choice over when they work. While some people dread receiving after-hours emails, for others, the evenings are an ideal time for inbox admin.
This is something current advocates are attempting to address. In the UK, a right to disconnect law would require companies to negotiate with their staff and agree rules on when people could not be contacted for work purposes. There would be no blanket ban on out-of-hours communication, but rather an individualistic approach.
And research suggests many home-workers in the UK want to see a similar policy introduced. A survey carried out earlier this year by Prospect found that 66% of those currently working remotely would support the right to disconnect. More than a third of remote workers polled (35%) said their work-related mental health had worsened during the pandemic, with 42% saying this is at least partly a result of an inability to switch off from work.
“People’s experience of working from home during the pandemic has varied wildly depending on their jobs, their home circumstances, and crucially the behaviour of their employers,” said Andrew Pakes, director of research at Prospect.
“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. Remote working is here to stay, but it can be much better than it has been in recent months,” he added.
“Including a Right to Disconnect in the Employment Bill would be 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.”