In this post we consider the right to disconnect;
the potential benefits and drawbacks,
the root causes, and offer 3 tips for
making the work/life boundary clearer.
There has been talk in many circles recently, including political, about whether a legal ‘right to disconnect’ for remote workers should be introduced in the UK to help improve mental health, reduce burnout and increase productivity. The debate is gaining momentum following the decline many have felt to their mental wellbeing during a prolonged period of home working during the Covid pandemic.
What is a right to disconnect?
In a nutshell, it gives employees the right to switch off from work outside normal working hours including the right not to answer work calls, read or reply to texts, or react to emails.
How do other countries deal with this issue?
Several European countries have adopted the right to disconnect in some form into their laws, whilst various large organisations have already included it in their policies even if it is not a legal requirement.
At the beginning of 2017, France was the first country to legally recognise the ‘right to disconnect’. However, they acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all approach would not be possible. So, the rules and procedures around the use of electronic communications must be negotiated between employee representatives and the employer for each individual company of more than 50 employees. The aim being that employees’ non-work hours, vacation periods and personal and family life are respected.
In April this year, Ireland brought in a Code of Practice giving all employees the right to disconnect from work and have a better work-life balance.
The German vehicle manufacturer Daimler have long had a corporate email policy that protects employees during holiday periods and on their immediate return . Out of office messages can advise the sender that the recipient is on vacation and cannot read their email, who to alert if there is an urgent issue, but that the sender’s email will be deleted and the onus is on the sender to re-send, if necessary, on the employee’s return from vacation.
Potential Benefits of a right to disconnect
Instituting a clear boundary between work and home life has been found to improve employee health and wellbeing by encouraging a full ‘switch off’, which is also believed to have the benefit of increasing employees’ levels of productivity when they are working . There is no doubt that working from home has blurred the lines for many between work and home life and it is thought remote working may be the area that may benefit most initially.
If a formal right to disconnect is in place, pressure to join an ‘always on’ culture is reduced. By expressing clarity around response expectations between both colleagues and superiors, the ability to fully ‘switch off’ in personal time is improved and engagement during working hours can increase.
This can also increase awareness and encourage a workplace culture which respects the importance of self-care and employees’ lives outside work.
Potential drawbacks of a right to disconnect
Organisations working across different countries and time zones may find a rigid right to disconnect restrictive and inflexible, potentially adding to employees’ work stress rather than reducing it.
For example, in 2012 Volkswagen configured their internal servers not to route emails to employees’ accounts half an hour after the flexiday ended to the same before their shift commenced the following day and not at all during weekends. Thus, removing employees’ ability to check emails out of hours rather than leaving the onus with the employee as to whether they do or not.
Perhaps this illustrates that what works for one may not suit every organisation. And highlights the need for flexibility and policies to be individually negotiated and agreed between management and their workforce.
The advantages of flexible working also need consideration. For example, those with children or caring responsibilities may find it beneficial to break off for a few hours during the day and resume work in the evening.
The root causes behind the calls for a right to disconnect need to be considered
It is easy to think that our current always-on culture has evolved alongside the introduction and growth of digital communication, and that it is only now we potentially need to consider a legislative solution.
This may be true but heavy workloads, excessive demands and poor communication from demanding bosses caused harm to employees' health and wellbeing long before the advent of emails or text messages. The difference now being that the portability of digital communication methods reaching into our homes blurs the physical and mental work and personal life boundary.
However, it should be remembered that these issues continue to be at the root of employees' ability to disconnect and that they can, and have, been tackled by pro-active employers committed to improving employee wellbeing, retention and productivity.
Tips for making the life/work boundary clearer
So, whilst the discussion around a ‘right to disconnect’ continues, and for those who work in smaller companies which may never be covered by any such legislation, here are a few suggestions we can take as individuals and teams to help improve our mental health and possibly, in turn, our productivity.
- Discuss workloads regularly so everyone understands what the expectations are around out of hours communication.
- Make it clear the days you work by adding details to your online signature or advise team members verbally.
- If you are in a position of leadership and it suits your work pattern to deal with emails outside of the usual office hours, regularly clarify that there is no expectation for staff members to read or respond until they are next working.
Virtual commute –
We hear a lot about the negative side of commuting and not having a commute is often high on the list of benefits of working from home.
However, the commute does draw a physical line between work and home. Our brains often use the commute to switch between work and personal mode.
- So, if you’re working from home and are one of the fortunate ones who has a separate room to work in; take a few moments after turning your digital devices off to give yourself the chance to disengage from work before closing the office door for the day.
- If you work in the same space as you will be spending your leisure time, try to remove your work to another room to ensure it is not a visual reminder all evening. Going for a quick walk, even round the block, can give your brain the chance to switch off from work.
Schedule self-care –
Rather than leaving your personal needs as a mental list, add them to your diary. By writing them down and giving them a timeslot in your day, they are far more likely to happen, helping you create successful boundaries between your work and personal life.
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