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.