The increased take up of home working caused by the pandemic has meant that statistically over a third of the UK’s working population have done at least some work at home in the last year.
For some, it has been a welcome change from having to face a daily commute that would often involve overcrowded public transport or gridlocked roads.
However, for others having to work from home has meant that the lines between work and home time have been blurred.
Concerns relating to the well-being of those that feel they are on duty 24/7 have resulted in some calls for new legislation to limit when email communications can be sent to workers.
A statutory “Right to Disconnect”
A recent BBC news article “Working from home: Call to ban out-of-hours emails from bosses” highlighted that the proposals for legal changes have the backing of at least one union which wants new statutory protections to be put in place. The Prospect Union wants to see the introduction of a “Right to Disconnect” and is intending to present a petition to the Government in support of such a law. Prospect says that the UK needs to catch up as other countries including France, Ireland, Argentina and the Philippines have already put in place restrictions to safeguard workers.
A new ‘Right to Disconnect’ might mean that no emails could be sent to employees outside of their normal hours of work. It is likely that employers would need to ensure that IT systems delete emails that contravene this rule. The idea being that only then would employees not be under pressure to keep a constant check on their inbox.
Would a blanket ban safeguard health?
Not everyone would agree. Whilst restrictions may mean that emails will not come through during the hours that the employee is not contracted to work the accumulation of emails for when they do start may lead to even further stress. If an employee is not free to respond to their emails at a time to suit them, they could end up feeling overloaded at the start of their working day.
In 2019 Personnel Today reported that research conducted by the University of Sussex confirmed that putting in place a blanket ban on emails would be not only considered unwelcome by a great number of employees but, could also cause stress for those who were intent on achieving certain work goals. It recognised that a restrictive policy relating to email would not be beneficial to all. Following the study Dr Emma Russell, a senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex Business School said that “People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel like they are adequately managing their workload. When people do this, these actions can become relatively habitual, which is more efficient for their work practices.”
The practicality of such a measure in restricting when an employee can work has also got to be questionable. Homeworking can bring its own unique pressures that can impact workers at all levels. There may be certain times during ‘working hours’ when there are unavoidable interruptions, a delivery to take, a barking dog to let out or feed; some might even be having to juggle childcare or other care responsibilities also. These interruptions can take up time meaning that the first opportunity that someone might have to send an email is when the recipient is no longer working. A blanket policy which prohibited that email even being sent would not appear to be in anyone’s interests. Perhaps this may force a reset in the way we work and cause the sender to think whether they need to send that then or at all. This would be an unintended but welcome consequence of these suggested measures.
Communicating safeguards and flexibility
More appropriate and certainly more practical than legislation is a work policy that has been effectively communicated to all which recognises that all staff may switch off their work computers and phones when they are not required to work. Better still employers should encourage their staff to do this and that they do make the most of their free time outside of working hours. Not only is this more likely to be good for the mental health of the majority of the workforce but it also still allows the flexibility of working in a way that suits the individual.