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Switching off an ‘always-on’ culture

For a full ‘right to disconnect’ approach to emails to work it must become part of UK law

A by-product of the technological era, the ‘always-on’ culture has become a prevalent issue in recent years.

Smartphones and tablets mean emails are now just as easy to access at home as they are at work. And, for employees whose personal phone is also their work phone, it has become even more difficult to escape from constant notifications.

This can cause employees to feel that they are always on call, building pressure and impacting their mental health. A false mindset has been created so that individuals who wait to answer out-of-hours emails until they are back in work hours show less dedication than their colleagues who respond instantaneously. The stress this causes is leading to more people being signed off work.

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In an effort to reduce burnout, a number of companies have introduced policies that aim to help employees disconnect from their emails outside of working hours.

However, researchers at University of Sussex Business School have found that, while a ban could help staff switch off, it could also stop work goals being achieved, increasing stress further. So, how can businesses tackle the ‘always-on’ culture in a way that doesn’t leave employees feeling overwhelmed by mounting emails?

In 2017, France introduced a ‘right to disconnect’ law to tackle the always-on culture. The fact that the law is still in place and there has been little public outrage towards it suggests that it has been a positive move.

It enables people to spend more time with their families and relax how they wish, without worrying about emails and work pressures.

This success makes it likely that other countries will follow suit, but they must consider how to do so without productivity and customer service being affected.

Businesses throughout the UK have looked at new policies to try and combat the problem with the always-on culture. Although not rolled out to the same extent as France, some companies have put email policies in place that limit the times when employees should respond to emails.

However, most businesses have taken a less prescriptive approach, bringing in agile working to give flexibility to workers. This ensures they can work at times that are more suitable for them. Mental health awareness programmes have also become more common, with mental health first aiders and other support networks available to employees feeling the strain.

For a full ‘right to disconnect’ approach to work, however, it must become part of UK law. Businesses are not confined to a core set of hours, and sometimes emails must be dealt with outside of the working day.

If only a selection of businesses ban out-of-hours emails, employees could be greeted with a mountain of client requests each morning. It could also lead to a loss of work with clients and customers becoming frustrated at slow reaction times and missed targets. Instead of lessening the pressure, stress would more than likely grow higher.

It is vital that the issue of an always-on culture is brought into the open. A blanket ban may not be the right course of action for the UK yet, but businesses should still act to protect the wellbeing of their employees.

Should an organisation wish to create a strict policy around answering out-of-hours emails, this must be tailored to the kind of work that the company carries out. For example, they could introduce a ban on weekend emails or set out guidelines on what classes as an urgent email, with notifications on devices set accordingly.

Other physical measures such as break-out areas could also be introduced to encourage people to step away from their computers and recharge during the working day. Ensuring holidays and proper rest away from work is taken is also important.

Most of all, expectations must be made clear. There is no hard and fast rule that employees must check their emails 24/7 or face the consequences. Every person should be allowed to separate themselves from work as soon as they step outside the office.

Unless businesses tackle this always-on culture head on, the rate of stress-related absence is likely to rise. All companies must supply their workers with transparent email guidelines, as well as a support network for those who work outside of typical office hours.

Without these, employers may find themselves with additional obligations to ensure employees who have developed mental health issues are able to return to the workplace with appropriate support.

Above all, the wellbeing of employees should always be prioritised over responding to an email.

Rhys Wyborn is a partner in the employment team at law firm at Shakespeare Martineau

Updates on the right to disconnect:

Mental health professionals ask employers to implement a right to disconnect

Is an out of hours ban a step back in time?

A four-day working week is great for some, but not for all