Remote workers largely supportive of a UK right to disconnect

by Joseph K. Clark

Two-thirds of remote workers in the UK want the government to include a “right to disconnect” policy in the upcoming Employment Bill, which would require companies to negotiate with their staff and agree rules on when people cannot be contacted for work purposes. Under a right to disconnect, workers would be entitled to switch off from work and not engage in digitally enabled communications outside their normal working hours, including emails, telephone calls, and other messages.

Polling from Opinium, commissioned by Prospect Union – which represents science, tech, and other specialist workers – found that a significantly higher number of workers support (59%), rather than oppose (17%), a right to disconnect policy in the UK. This support was strong across all age groups, With voters from all political parties – of the Conservative-voting workers polled, for example, 53% supported the idea compared to 22% that did not.

“It’s been tough over the last year,” said Angus Wheeler-Rowe, a Prospect Union member working in the telecoms sector. “Even though working from home has helped to keep people safe, it has made it harder to separate work, home, and family commitments. When your personal space becomes your office, and with no commute to bookend the day, pressure grows for longer days and response to requests at unreasonable hours.

“Setting rules about the boundaries for remote or hybrid working would make a big difference in helping people switch off and recharge, especially if we will spend much more time working from home. Reinforcing the distinction between work and home will increase motivation and at-work productivity, which has to be better for bosses and workers.”

Remote workers

When asked about the potential downsides of prolonged remote working, 35% of workers said their work-related mental health had worsened during the pandemic, with 42% saying this was partly due to being unable to switch off from work. A further 30% of remote staff also reported working more unpaid hours than before the pandemic, with 18% working at least four additional unpaid hours per week. In response to the findings, Prospect said the figures reveal the “dark side” of remote working and call for legislative change to help mitigate the negative consequences of mass working from home.

“People’s experience working from home during the pandemic has varied wildly depending on their jobs, home circumstances, and employers’ behavior. 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 switch off, contributing to poor mental health fully,” said Prospect’s research director Andrew Pakes.

“Remote working is here to stay, but it can be much better than in recent months. Including a right to disconnect in the Employment Bill would be a big step in redrawing the blurred boundary between home and work and showing that the government is serious about tackling the dark side of remote working.” Prospect has written to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng urging him to pursue the policy and open a consultation on the right to disconnect ahead of the Employment Bill, which is expected to be included in May’s Queen Speech.

In response to the letter and Computer Weekly’s questions about whether Kwarteng and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) support a right to disconnect for British workers, a BEIS spokesperson said: “We recognize that this has been an exceptionally difficult year for people and that the pandemic has had an impact on mental health. This is why we have already provided £10.2m for mental health charities throughout the pandemic and have committed an extra £2.3bn a year to mental health services by 2023/24. “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.”

Calls for the right to disconnect international gain momentum

Other UK-based trade unions are similarly calling for a legal right to divorce. The TUC, for example, published a report in March 2021 warning that huge gaps in British law over the use of artificial intelligence (AI) at work will lead to discrimination and unfair treatment of working people.

“It might be thought that these new technologies would be liberating for workers, and in some ways, they can be,” wrote the report’s authors. “But new technologies are encroaching significantly on workers’ private spheres over and above the proper professional and working time. Increased digitization through AI and other forms of technology contributes to an ‘always-on’ culture in which employees are never completely free from work.

“There is a growing sense that employers are increasingly expecting their workforce to be easily contactable at all times.” In Ireland, all employees now have a right to disconnect under an official code of practice drawn up by Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission, which took effect on 1 April 2021. Specifically, it enshrines “the right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours; the right to not be penalized for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; [and] the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (e.g., by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours)”.

Advisory Committee

The federal government in Canada is also investigating the introduction of a right to disconnect, creating a Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee to bring together business and union leaders to discuss and set new rules for digitally switching off. The committee’s first meeting occurred in October 2020, with Canadians invited to participate in an online consultation about the right to disconnect in March 2021.

“Increased availability of mobile technologies has enabled employers to demand that employees remain reachable off duty and may be contributing to increased work intensification. Engaging in e-communications for work purposes outside of work hours has been associated with poorer sleep quality, higher levels of burnout, and increased health-related absenteeism,” wrote the Canadian Minister for Labor, Filomena Tassi, in November 2020.

“Employers may favor employees who respond to work-related e-communications outside of working hours and incentivize such behavior through promotions or bonuses,” she said. “This unfairly disadvantages workers who acannotremain connected after work due to family responsibilities, health reasons, or lack the necessary tools to work from home (e.g., a computer, high-speed internet).”

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