As we start another working week after some of us were hopefully able to switch off over the bank holiday weekend, recent research by Autonomy on the ‘right to disconnect’ caught my eye.
As the paper highlights, research has revealed that there is a growing epidemic of hidden overtime linked with increasing numbers of people having the ability to send and receive work-related correspondence from virtually anywhere, at any time. Whilst this was an issue pre-pandemic, the enforced move to homeworking as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures has, according to research, exacerbated the situation with many employees unable to properly ‘switch off’ outside normal working hours. ONS data suggests that by April 2020, a third of those in employment were working more hours than usual. This rise in unseen overtime has a knock-on effect on mental health as the boundaries between work and the home become increasingly blurred.
Recent analysis undertaken by the ILO also suggests that this is having a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely to be undertaking homeworking due to the greater likelihood that they are responsible for childcare, housework and caring for elderly relatives.
The ‘right to disconnect’ already exists in France and is being explored by other countries, such as Ireland. The trade union Prospect has previously mounted a campaign for the implementation of a right to disconnect in the UK.
Under the ‘right to disconnect’ proposed in Autonomy’s paper, workers would have the right to bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal if they were subject to a detriment for failing or refusing to work or respond to work-related communications. However, UK employers would have the ability to opt out of the regime if they could demonstrate they had good reasons for doing so.
The paper produced by Autonomy suggests that there should also be a corresponding system of government oversight or enforcement (to bolster the individual method of enforcing the right). In its view, without government oversight, a statutory right would not be effective in combating any wider epidemic of hidden overtime.
There is no signal from the UK government that the introduction of a right to disconnect is being contemplated, however it is food for thought for employers. In the meantime, hidden overtime and long working hours remain a consideration under employers’ general duty of care towards their employees, including to ensure the mental wellbeing of employees who continue to work from home.