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Ireland gave all employees a right to disconnect. Now UK workers want one, too

Remote working continues to take its toll on the metal health of employees, who now want new rights to protect them against ‘the dark side of remote working’.

Switching off from work has become more difficult since work and home have become one and the same.

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Switching off from work has become more difficult since work and home have become one and the same.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As remote working stretches on in the UK, new polling shows that burnt-out workers want greater protection from workplace stress with a ‘right to disconnect’.

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Polling carried out by Opinium on behalf of professionals’ union Prospect found that two-thirds (66%) of employees want to see a right-to-disconnect policy in the upcoming 2021 UK Employment Bill, which is expected to include a number of employment reforms influenced by the impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s work economy.

These include plans to make flexible working a default option for all advertised jobs, which would give employees greater freedom around how they split their time between the office and home.

A right to disconnect seeks to give employees fundamental rights to disengage from work-related communications outside of their regular office hours, and requires companies to negotiate and agree upon rules with staff around when they can be contacted for work purposes.

Such a policy was recently enshrined into Ireland’s employment Code of Practice, and applies to all workers regardless of whether they work remotely or in an office.

Prospect found that support for the policy was strong across all age groups in the UK as well as with voters from all political parties, with 65% of Labour and 53% of Conservative-voting workers supporting the idea, compared to just 22% opposed. Overall, 59% of workers supported the idea, with 17% opposed.

SEE: Research: Video conferencing tools and cloud-based solutions dominate digital workspaces; VPN and VDI less popular with SMBs (TechRepublic Premium)

Remote working in the pandemic has been tough for many — hardly surprising when you consider that UK workers have been living under some of the strictest and most long-lasting COVID-19 restrictions in the world. Prospect found that 35% of remote workers felt their mental health at work had suffered during the pandemic, with 42% saying this was at least partly a result of their inability to switch off from their professional responsibilities at the end of the day.

Overall, 32% of remote workers said they were finding it hard to fully switch off from work. Prospect also found that 30% of remote workers are working more unpaid hours than before the pandemic, with nearly one in five (18%) working at least four additional unpaid hours per week.

Prospect research director Andrew Pakes said the results showed that the hyper-connected nature of working from home for such a long period had taken its toll on employees . “People’s experience of working from home during the pandemic has varied wildly depending on their jobs, their home circumstances, and crucially the behavior of their employers,” Pakes said.

“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.”

The European Parliament is supporting similar proposals around a right to disconnect, with MEPs in January voting in favor of introducing new legislation across the 27-member bloc.

The Canadian government recently established a Right To Disconnect Advisory Committee, comprising business leaders and unions, to set out new rules that would help employees disengage from work outside of their working hours

SEE: The future of work: Tools and strategies for the digital workplace (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Frances O’Grady, general secretary for Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC), called for similar policies to be introduced in the UK.

O’Grady told TechRepublic: “We all need a good work-life balance with some proper downtime. But today’s technology can easily blur the line between work and home, with no let-up from work stresses. Unions in France and Germany have already won rights for workers to disconnect. The new guidance in Ireland is another step forward. It is time that workers in the UK were protected too with a legal right to disconnect from work.”

Prospect said its figures revealed “the dark side of remote working”, and called on ministers to make legislative changes that would better equip workers for the  widespread continuation of working from home after the pandemic. 

Angus Wheeler-Rowe, a union member in the telecoms sector, said that setting boundaries for remote and hybrid working would help employees better separate their work and home lives, as well as “make a big difference in helping people switch off and recharge.” 

“When your personal space becomes your office, and with no commute to bookend the day, pressure grows for longer days and responses to requests at unreasonable hours,” he said.

Prospect has now written to UK Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, urging him to include the right to disconnect in advance of an Employment Bill, which is expected to be included in the Queen’s Speech in May.

A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it recognized that it had been “an exceptionally difficult year for people” and the impact this had had on people’s mental health.

The spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation, including introducing more measures to support people in balancing work with their personal lives, and encouraging flexible working.”

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