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Should we ban bosses from emailing after working hours?

France introduced a law four years ago that secured employees the ‘right to disconnect’ from bosses to improve mental health. Should other countries do the same?   

UK organisation Prospect is calling for the government to introduce new protections into its Employment Bill that would ban bosses from routinely emailing employees outside of working hours.

It comes after a year and a half of huge, widespread cultural shifts in the way we work as a result of the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics reported that 35.9% of UK employees at least partly worked from home in 2020, radically altering a typical working day and disrupting our usual 9 – 5 routines.

This change has meant that, at least for some, the line between work and leisure time has become significantly blurrier, creating a more stressful environment than a regular office.

RSPH found that those who switched to working from home last year felt less connected to colleagues, with almost two thirds saying they felt ‘more isolated’ overall. Couple this with an inconsistent schedule and a lack of boundaries with employers and you’ve a recipe for disaster.

So, should we be changing how our bosses can get in touch with us? It’s a more complicated issue than you may think. Let’s break it down.


Why should a ban be introduced?  

Introducing a legal ban that protects employees would no doubt help to keep a distinct line between down time and working hours.

The UK has had an issue with obsessive productivity for many years, with one 1999 study from the Guardian discovering that ‘up to a million people are workaholics’. Another survey twenty years later saw up to 40% of British adults admitting that they ‘cannot leave work alone’.

Time off when ill remains a big issue too. In 2019, 79% of UK employees said they were ‘too afraid to take a sick day’ and continued working despite being physically or mentally unwell.

The sudden lockdowns of 2020 meant that much of this persistent work attitude became part of the home, bringing our work anxieties to our bedrooms and living rooms with no prior warning. Not having a physical distinction between work and relaxing can risk burnout – a result that Prospect wants to avoid.

Speaking to the BBC, IT consultant Clair Mullaly says that her own experience has been challenging, and that legislation needs to be introduced that ‘gives people time to switch off and recharge’.

Ireland recently introduced a new ‘code of practice’ that encourages employers to include notifications or pop-up messages as part of out-of-hours emails. These remind workers they’ve no obligation to reply immediately.

While this is certainly a start, it may not be enough for some bosses to change. Employees may still feel they haven’t the necessary space or time apart from work, which is where legal changes may need to come into effect.

France was the first to bring in new laws ensuring companies set agreed ‘specific hours’ for communication in 2016. Spain and Italy quickly followed suit.


Is a ban truly feasible?

While a ban might sound great on paper – especially if you’re an overworked employee – it may not technically be feasible, at least for many modern office jobs.

Forced remote work has caused a rapid evolution in the way we communicate. I’m sure most of us weren’t all too familiar with Zoom before February 2020 but now, almost eighteen months later, it’s become an office necessity.

We’re unlikely to ever go exactly back to how we used to operate, which means we should expect many companies to adopt a flexible part-time working-from-home model on a permanent basis once the pandemic is over. This presents new challenges in itself, as many workers across large teams will be on the clock at different times and will have no ‘standard’ for when they should be working throughout the day.

Introducing laws that insist on blackout times in communication could hinder productivity significantly for these types of companies. Flexibility is a particular perk of this new working model and research suggests that some employees want this to continue.

Is it really possible to create a legal system in which employees can shut off all communication with their teams while also having an adaptable timetable? We’ve yet to fully work that one out.

Speaking to the BBC, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, describes Prospect’s demands as ‘very challenging’.

It seems the answer may be subjective to each individual company, making concrete national UK laws very difficult to implement.

Perhaps we need to have more regular conversations with our bosses about boundaries before the legal system starts getting involved, though that requires a level of honesty that many of us are likely reluctant to offer.

Either way, our working world has already rapidly evolved since even the beginning of 2020. Our legal system and guidelines will need to catch up eventually – in whatever form that may be.

We’ve a while until concrete legislation is in place, but the ball is rolling. That’s reason enough to feel optimistic.

 

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