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Coronavirus: Should we have the right to disconnect when we’re working from home?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Advocates argue a “right to disconnect” law is needed to protect the mental health of a new generation of home workers. (Getty)

It’s a situation many of us find ourselves in every day. Technically, you are supposed to start work at 8am and clock off nine hours later. But more often than not, you find yourself answering emails, texts and WhatsApp messages from bosses and colleagues as you get ready for bed.

It often feels like the working day never ends, particularly when you’re working from home. When your work environment is your home, it’s hard to stop working without a change of scenery — and many people feel pressured to be contactable and seen as “on it” when working remotely.

Sometimes, sending a quick out-of-hours email can resolve a problem quickly, allowing us to finally switch off and relax. But putting extra hours in every day can quickly lead to problems such as stress, anxiety and burnout as we spend more time at our desks.

Working from home amid the coronavirus outbreak means the average Brit is putting in an extra 28 hours of overtime a month, according to a survey of 2,000 people by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Why it's easy to burnout during lockdown

Earlier this year, Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey proposed workers should have a “right to disconnect” from work, to avoid risking the stress, anxiety and burnout associated with being constantly connected. It’s something the French have already introduced, but no such law exists in the UK. So is it something we should be considering?

Advocates argue a “right to disconnect” law is needed to protect the mental health of a new generation of home workers, whilst also enabling companies to fulfil their duty of care to staff and not be exposed.

In 2016, French employees won the legal right to avoid work emails outside working hours when the so-called "right to disconnect" law was introduced. Advocates of the move said employees who are expected to check and reply to their emails outside of work were not being paid fairly for their overtime — and that doing so carried a risk of stress, burnout and relationship problems. 

A similar law in the UK would require employees to disconnect from their work devices and networks when they’re not working, which would avoid the blurring of personal and professional lives, as the office 9 to 5 grows out of fashion.

“Under UK employment law, employers have a duty of care to protect the health and wellbeing of staff. This will become increasingly challenging if more people are working at home,” says Emma Swan, head of commercial employment law at Forbes Solicitors.

“The pressures of remote working, home-schooling and the current health and economic challenges could significantly impact people’s mental wellbeing and it can be difficult for employers to spot the signs of this without regular face-to-face contact,” she adds.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: How to set yourself a routine when working from home

“A right to disconnect law would go some way to stopping people working in their free time when they shouldn’t be. This needs to be carefully balanced with employers’ ability to offer flexible working from home around the current challenges.”

However, a right to disconnect law would be difficult to introduce. Policymakers would need to consider the practicalities of employees continuing to work offline outside of working hours, even though they are supposed to be disconnected. For some, not being able to access emails out of working hours may lead to stress — particularly if they can’t address a problem that crops up.

“While a right to disconnect would preserve non-work time for employees, it’d probably require employers to monitor what staff do during this time,” says Daniel Milnes, a governance and information law partner at Forbes Solicitors. “Such monitoring does not require employee consent as it would be associated with workplace health and safety — a category the right to disconnect falls into.

The French law first applied to home-workers and then to all employees in businesses with over 50 staff, Miles says. “Debate has already started about whether an employee who has got home after a day working in an office or travelling is any less deserving of protection than someone who has worked the same hours from home,” he explains.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Will ‘busyness’ stop being status symbol post-COVID-19

Rather than a right to work from home, it could be more practical to allow employees the right to work flexibly. Moreover, this should be something that is actively encouraged by employers, rather than agreed to through gritted teeth.

“There are already Flexible Working Regulations in existence. Adapting these would be more practical for everyone, rather than trying to pass two very new and untested laws,” Swan says. “This could help companies and their staff to better blend workplace and remote working, proving beneficial to employee health and wellbeing, and how companies support their employees with maintaining a work-life balance.”

⁠Careers clinic