Should we have a right to disconnect?

Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey has proposed the UK adopt a French-style right to disconnect, but would that work when many people don’t work traditional patterns or hours?

Always On Culture

How can we tackle the always on culture?

Presenteeism has been in the news this week – apparently this is the worst time of the year for it, given the increased number of colds and illness generally. People feel under pressure to stagger into work because of their workloads and a fear of not being seen to be working. Employers are dealing with it by offering flexible working which means that they at least cut down the commute when people are ill and reduce the spread of illness. It doesn’t solve the basic problem of overwork, though…

This week an Independent article cited Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) figures revealing that 15% of workers constantly monitor work emails outside work hours and another 25% check them at least five times a day. A third of employees agree that remote access to their workplace means that they can’t switch off in their personal time and almost a fifth say it makes them feel as though they are under surveillance, making them anxious and impacting their sleep.

This ‘always on’ culture is not conducive to mental health or to productivity because it means people are constantly exhausted and unable to focus, anticipating the latest urgent email request – because every email seems to demand an instantaneous response these days.

Right to disconnect

Labour leader hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey says the answer is to give people a French-style legal right to switch off their phones outside office hours.

In France, the government adopted the right into its Labour Code in response to a September 2015 report on the impact of digital technologies on labour which supported a right to “professional disconnection”. Each company implements it in its own way, according to the nature of their business and its demands. For companies with over 50 workers the rules are more stringent and require the right to be part of annual negotiations with unions on gender and quality of life at work or to form a charter of good conduct. Those with under 50 employees are expected to publish details of how the Code will apply to them, but do not face any penalty if they fail to do so.

A 2018 study of the policy by Luc Pansu from Abertay University showed various barriers to switching off, including the prevailing ‘always on’ mindset and the fact that, for some, it works better for them to be able to answer emails outside their hours. He proposes instead a “right for a chosen connection”. This would mean that no one could force or punish a worker to stay connected and accomplish work during his or her resting times, but those who wanted to work in this way could do it freely without expecting the same from others.

The study also suggests some examples of good practice for tackling the ‘always on’ culture, including adding additional messages in e-mails reminding that the sender does not expect an immediate answers, a ban on e-mailing recipients who are on holiday, deactivating “reply to all” on email to reduce email numbers, scheduling of emails and offering periods when people can slow down at work on a regular basis.

Digital presenteeism

Despite the rise of presenteeism, the ‘always on’ culture is possibly at its most pernicious for homeworkers who often find it hard to switch off, given the lines between work and home are so blurred and because they may feel pressure to go the extra mile as a result of working from home. They may not be in an office, but they often face the consequences of what is referred to as digital presenteeism.

Is legislation the best way to deal with this or is a blanket approach not fit for purpose, given many people may want to leave early to pick up their kids or for other reasons and need to jump back on the computer at home later? Does legislation at least put the issue higher up the agenda of many companies, even if that legislation is only loose and non-binding?

What is clear is that the ‘always on’ mindset is not merely a work phenomenon. People are increasingly glued to their phones at work and at home, often checking home stuff at work as well as work stuff at home. It’s likely to be a trend that continues if you take one glance at children. Much of that time is spent in the black hole of social media scrolling.

It’s only by standing back and looking at the issue in the whole as a wider cultural phenomenon that we can begin to exert some control. That may come in many forms, from duvet weekends to recover from the pace of modern life and constant week-day logistics and the demand for instant responses to everything to syphoning off some of the routine, instant response stuff to robots so humans can slow down and do the more reflective stuff we’re good at. It is, though, something we cannot afford to ignore.

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