Should the UK adopt an out-of-hours work ban?

"I support the call for more boundaries between work and home life, but not in this form," says psychologist Cary Cooper

Keir Starmer’s government may introduce a ‘right to switch off’, as part of its ‘new deal for workers’. But is banning employers from contacting staff out of hours the right approach?

Setting clear and formal boundaries for sending out-of-office work emails has been a point of debate in the UK for over a decade.

Many countries across Europe have already introduced new laws to protect employees from being contacted via email after regular working hours. Countries such as France, Spain, Ireland and Belgium can impose sanctions on employers that breach this regulation.

The ‘right to disconnect’ has increasingly come under the spotlight as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Read more: UK workers want to ban out-of-hours emails

The normalisation of working-from-home and accelerated flexible working patterns has resulted in employees finding it more difficult to ‘switch off’ and achieve a healthy work/life balance.

Calls for a UK ban fell on deaf ears... until April, when the Labour Party pledged to introduce a ‘right to switch off’ for workers as part of its ‘new deal for working people’. While well-intentioned, this policy has rightly come under considerable scrutiny.

First, it is important to state the research is clear: emails are damaging people’s mental health.

Read more: What impact would a right to disconnect have?

The techno-stress caused by receiving out-of-office emails is just another stressor for workers to deal with in our burnt-out nation. More than nine in 10 (91%) adults say they experience either high or extreme levels of pressure at work, while one in five say they need to take time off as a result of mental health problems, according to Mental Health UK’s 2024 Burnout Report.

It is unsurprising that we’re also seeing a rise in the number of adults turning to addiction in the UK to cope with this stress, particularly behavioural addictions like social media, shopping and gambling, which are tougher to spot compared to alcohol or drug addiction.

The addictive use of smartphones, with which you can access your work emails all the time and anytime, is causing real trauma. Before smartphones, out-of-hours emails were not causing this much trouble because you could simply log off your computer and go home. There was a clear and agreed separation between work and home life.

It is too easy to check work emails and this actively interferes with family life. It is the root cause of techno-stress.

I support the call for workers to create more boundaries between work and home life, but not in the form of Labour’s proposed ban on employers contacting staff out of hours. Introducing this will inhibit flexible working which has been a net positive for both employees and employers.

Read more: How can HR support employees’ right to switch off?

For example, you may want to go home early and pick up your child from school then start working again. You should be able to do that. But under a right to disconnect law, you may only be allowed to go back to work during core working hours.

The actions of line managers, with proper guidance and mandates from HR leaders, will be the solution to our email epidemic. I believe that line managers are partially responsible for the situation we are in right now.

Throughout my career, I have found that a sizeable minority of managers in developed countries have great technical skills and have been elevated to a people management position for this reason. However, these managers tend to lack emotional intelligence and the people skills required to meaningfully address techno-stress.

What can HR leaders do to help managers and tackle techno-stress?

  1. Prioritise investing in training for managers. Social skills and emotional intelligence can be learnt. These are important skills worth investing in.

  2. Mandate against late Friday afternoon emails for tasks that need to be picked up on Monday morning. This passes on the stress to the recipient, who will worry over the weekend.

  3. Set strong guidance against internal emails on the occasions where you can speak to your colleague in-person. This is better from a performance and health perspective.

  4. Limit the use of direct messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Slack. This feeds into a culture of needing an immediate response, negatively impacting email behaviour. Instead, direct messaging should be used in exceptional circumstances.

  5. Lead from the front through modelling best behaviour. For example, set time limitations and clear agendas for meetings, and/or avoid emailing someone who is out of office.


By professor Cary Cooper, psychologist and advisory board member at addiction rehab clinic, Delamere