The right to disconnect: are you switching off this Christmas?

Blog posts

19 Dec 2019

Stephen BevanStephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

Over the next few days thousands of us will be setting up our pre-Christmas ‘Out of Office’ messages. Some will be functional and factual statements about our availability over the holiday period while others will contain quirky and festive greetings. Most will be composed with a sense of relief that an eventful 2019 is coming to an end and that a well-earned break is coming up. Some of us may promise ourselves that, even if our colleagues or clients don’t share our stoic resolve not to use work emails over the holidays, this year we really are not going to give into the temptation to take a sneaky look on Boxing Day.

It’s at about this time of year that we remind ourselves of the need to take a break from work and to have some restorative time with family and friends. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence – as if we need to be reminded - that taking time away from work can deliver psychological and work performance benefits. Sadly, there is also evidence that we seem increasingly incapable of heeding this evidence and that the so-called ‘always on’ technology we carry around with us 24/7 is contributing to what some have called ‘technostress’.

Some research has even found that just the expectation of work-related communications in leisure or holiday time can trigger an anxiety response, even if no such communication happens. The argument goes that, while technology at work allows us to work anywhere and can be a liberating force; it can also drive an irresistible upsurge in work intensification which can damage our mental wellbeing and make us feel compelled to connect with our emails at all times of day or night, whether we are at work on holiday. So how much of a problem is this and what can be done to limit the damage?

At a recent ADAPT conference in Italy, I was struck by how many speakers from across Europe were discussing and advocating following the example of France and regulating to enshrine the principle of the ‘right to disconnect’. This legislation came into force early in 2017 and gives people working in organisations with more than 50 employees the right to ignore work-related emails outside their normal working hours. The French move has given rise to something of a domino effect with similar legislation introduced by Spain, Italy, Luxembourg and the Philippines. Other countries and jurisdictions are actively considering regulation in this area, including India, Ireland and Canada, with New York City Council also flirting with the idea.

It’s easy to understand why the regulatory path is being considered by so many countries. They, like the UK, are witnessing a rising prevalence of mental ill-health in the workforce and are concerned that the commercial and operational pressures of employers are being echoed in increasing demands upon employees. Yet, as might be expected, the appetite for a ‘right to disconnect’ law in the UK is not strong. I think there are three factors at work here.

First, the French model – while eye-catching and bold – has resulted in almost no real change and certainly only a handful of legal challenges (UK company, Rentokil Initial was fined €60k in 2018). This may be because enforcement of this kind of regulation is notoriously difficult and that part of the intention in introducing it was less to do with prosecuting non-compliant companies and more to do with sending a message to employers that work-life balance and mental health are part of the wider social responsibilities of business. It could be argued that, here in the UK, we already have sufficient regulations which require employers to assess psychosocial risk and to safeguard the mental health of employees under the ‘duty of care’ to staff. The UK still has an enforcement deficit here, however.

Second, there is quite a bit of evidence that restricting access to emails out of hours is not a high priority for employees. Research by Dr Emma Russell and colleagues at Sussex University found that employees like and feel they benefit from the flexibility of being able to access emails and that technological solutions - such as automatically delaying the sending of emails - can ensure that those who wish to send emails when on holiday can do so without disturbing those who want to take a break from them. Other research notes that our collective attachment to the internet is now so strong that, for many, the right to disconnect is likely to be increasingly irrelevant and undesirable.

Third, it may be that voluntary action by employers may be the most pragmatic compromise for UK employers. Germany, for example, has resisted the temptation to follow France and others down the regulatory path but has a growing number of businesses taking action because of both the moral imperative and because they recognise that poor mental health and work-life balance can damage morale and productivity.

In the German car industry several employers have, as part of works council collective agreements, implemented changes to email practices. For example, the works council at Porsche plans to implement a works agreement, such as that already in force at Volkswagen, which stipulates that the employees' mail server must be switched off between 7 pm and 6 am as well as during weekends and holidays.

As is often the case, a cultural or behavioural shift can be a more effective trigger for change than a new law. If more UK bosses were to set an example by making it clear that they were taking a break from email themselves while not at work – and, more specifically, expected others to do the same – then it might just be possible to take some of the pressure off those employees who feel that checking their email while eating plum duff this Christmas is the ultimate act of loyalty and commitment to the cause. So, as a New Year approaches, why don’t we all resolve to give it a try?


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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.