Should we have a right to disconnect?

More and more employers are thinking about introducing a right to disconnect, but are they focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause: workload?

Tired woman pouring coffee

 

A recent survey by Owl Labs shows over a quarter of employers are considering introducing “right to disconnect” policies to ensure their employees can switch off amid growing concerns about the blurring of lines between work and family or other life.

Right to disconnect policies cover everything from bans on emailing after certain hours to ignoring out of hours phone calls. France already has legislation to stop people working all hours from home and Ireland has also published a code of practice to encourage employers to restrict out of hours emails.

Covid has, of course, accentuated worries about all the time working because many more people have had to work from home and have seen the line between home life and work blurring. However, would a right to disconnect have helped people during Covid?

Yes, many employers have trialled things like Zoom-free Fridays or banned calls at lunchtimes or at other specific times of day, but, with people having to work flexibly around, for instance, homeschooling commitments, being able to flex hours has been crucial – if exhausting. Banning people from sending emails after 6pm would make life more difficult for those who have had to turn their days inside out to get through the last months. Moreover, some employers have trialled meeting-free days only to review this because they just resulted in every other day being more intense.

Choice about how and when you work

Surely having more choice about how and when you work relieves stress rather than creates it? The problem comes through two inter-related things: the pressure to be always on and workload. People seem to need instant answers to everything these days and everything moves so fast, particularly in some jobs, which makes switching off almost impossible. For those jobs there needs to be recognition of the extra hours involved and more opportunities to take time out to do something completely different.

Then there is workload, the biggest problem of all.  It’s not just the amount of work that we are asked to do, but the intensity with which it has to be done that is the problem. Perhaps we could plan better for busy times, but it’s hard to plan in a storm and every day sometimes feels like a bit of a hurricane in some jobs. The minute you answer one complex email, 10 more flash up. Many crucial decisions are taken at lightning speed. Significant numbers of people who have reduced to part-time hours are well used to the problems that arise from tweaking external issues to look as if you are being accommodating when what would really help would be reducing a full-time workload to the hours available to do it.

I am probably more responsive to email than I used to be pre-parent because you never know when something might happen and I feel constantly on the point of being swamped. It’s the same with taking time off. I don’t generally take a lot of days off because I am hording my holidays in case of emergencies. The problem that there is a dwindling capacity or cover for people being off work. If you do go on holiday and switch off, you generally come back to an email mountain.

What’s more the amount of work and the speed at which it has to be done seems only to rise. That usually comes in the form of what seems like a small addition to the role, for instance, covering another social media platform or putting some video into a story. But these incremental increases mount up.

Definitely people need to have time off, but perhaps employers need to take a deeper look at the work different people do now and how manageable it is in people’s contracted hours if they did them at a normal sustainable speed. That is, of course, hard to measure in some roles. Work has changed tremendously in recent decades. Some innovations have saved time, of course, but that time saving often comes with an expectation to do a lot more and faster.

Of course, there will be times when people are busier, but when those times are every day, that is when alarm bells should be flashing. Being able to disconnect is vital, but not if you return to an overloaded inbox which means you have to work faster and harder to catch up. Banning emails when you are on holiday or at certain times of the day could reduce that inbox,  of course, but it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem of the day to day workload and, even if you can schedule emails, it means those who need to flex their hours feel somehow ostracised and excluded.



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