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Labour is reported to be considering legislation granting rights to disconnect and to work from home. But is that the right way forward?
This week it was leaked that the Labour party is to introduce “right to switch off” rules if elected, restricting employers from contacting their staff by phone, WhatsApp or email outside working hours. It was also reported that Labour would give people a legal right to work from home. The proposals are likely to be considered as part of the party’s national policy forum in July.
Several countries now have right to disconnect legislation which is designed to address the increasing blurring of work and family life and ensure that employees get sufficient rest. France has been seen as a forerunner, passing legislation in August 2016 allowing employees to switch off phones and other devices outside of set working hours. Portugal, Canada, Ireland and Spain have similar legislation and Belgium recently passed a law covering public sector employees, although out-of-hours contact is permissible in exceptional circumstances. There are plans to extend this to the private sector. The European Union is facing calls for a right to refrain from electronic communications during non-work hours after a resolution was passed in January 2021 calling for an EU directive on the subject. Kenya is also considering proposals.
A UK Ipsos poll in 2022 found majority support for a ‘right to disconnect’ law. Six in 10 of respondents said they would support the introduction of a law giving employees the right to ignore work-related communication outside working hours. Yet legislation on a right to disconnect is not without its detractors. Academic studies show a mixed picture.
A study of right to disconnect legislation in France and Spain suggests the need for legislation to be explicit about protection mechanisms and sanctions so that workers can benefit from it with suffering reprisals. It also calls for the replacement of the monitoring of working time by an assessment of workloads as a way of better guaranteeing rest periods for employees.
Another study of French legislation similarly found obstacles with implementation due to the prevailing work culture. It suggests instead a “right to a chosen connection” as being a more flexible route to the law’s aims.
Others are more critical. The head of M&S has already spoken out about both the work from home proposal and the right to disconnect, saying it doesn’t fit with today’s flexible 24/7 workforce. And in a 2022 article, researchers at the University of Guelph say the right to disconnect “simply takes the physical time clock off the wall and figuratively puts it into the cloud”. They argue: “Although an important initiative, a greater focus on employee autonomy is needed to maximize the benefits intended by these laws.”
Moreover, for some being able to leave work early to pick up children and then jump on emails later in the evening gives them the flexibility they need around caring responsibilities. The problem is when workers are not in control of how many hours they work and when working all hours becomes the norm. As some of the researchers have pointed out, the root of the problem is workload and that requires more careful monitoring, better job design and measures to streamline emails and other forms of communication. Legislation, carefully worded, can highlight the problem of lack of rest time, but there is more that needs to be done to address the root of the problem.