UK workers want to ban out-of-hours emails

Employees are calling for a ban on out-of-hours emails from bosses, citing that the coronavirus pandemic has already made work more stressful.

Claire Mullaly, an IT consultant from Northern Ireland, told BBC News employees are facing a lot of pressure to check emails, jump on video calls and to be on hand at all hours of the day.

She said: “It's now become harder to draw a line between work and home life.”

Mullaly argued that this way of work is not sustainable, and trade union Prospect agreed and called for the UK government to give employees a legally binding right to disconnect.

Giving employees a legal right to disconnect would mean employers would be banned from emailing or calling employees outside of set work hours.

Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary at Prospect, commented: “While digital technology has kept us safe during the pandemic, for millions of people, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, making it harder to fully switch off.”

Jeanette Wheeler, HR director at software company MHR, said it is important both employers and employees set work boundaries.

She told HR magazine: "Employers must be mindful of the impact that working from home has on employees work-life boundaries.

“Without a commute, or a morning coffee with colleagues there can be a temptation to start work earlier and finish later which over extended periods of time has negative implications for employee wellbeing.”

Wheeler suggested that to help track employee wellbeing, organisations should invest in solutions that help build a more connected workforce and encourage open lines of communication.

“This will not only provide greater engagement across the organisation but will also help managers step in to avoid employees being at risk of burnout due to extended working hours,” she said.

Wheeler also pointed out that companies where employees routinely over-work are not only failing in their duty of care, but are undermining their own organisational resilience when the business climate remains uncertain.

She said: "Excessive hours can diminish performance quality and dramatically put pressure on employees to always be responsive, which can often lead to poor retention rates, and this is why wellbeing should be at the centre of an organisation’s resilience initiatives.

"We know the importance of balancing workloads, but when working from home has increased so significantly, it’s easy for managers to lose sight of what employees are doing."

The solution, Wheeler said, is for organisations to ensure managers check in regularly with their team members to monitor progress and assess their mental wellbeing face-to-face.

"Where necessary, they can adjust workloads and reassign tasks to ensure employees don’t burn out, but if an employee is suffering, their manager should be able to refer them to mental-health first aiders, employee assistance programmes or other external providers who can intervene before problems become more deep-rooted," she said.

In France, the right to disconnect has now been law for four years and companies must set agreed specific hours for tele-workers.

Similarly, Ireland brought in a code of practice last month, under which employers should add footers and pop-up messages to remind employees that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours.

Trade union Prospect has called for UK government to set out similar protections in its Employment Bill that is expected to be published later this year.

Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at Stephensons, said with home working now likely to become a permanent fixture, employers need to amend their HR policies to meet the demands of a more flexible workforce.

He said: "Before the pandemic, the issue of digital presenteeism was a growing concern, with our smartphones, laptops and other digital devices creating an ‘always-on’ culture.

“There is a real risk that the transition to home-working, post-pandemic, could exacerbate these issues further.”

Richardson said as the right to disconnect is still not mandatory, he encourages employers to engage with their staff and understand their preferences on out of hours contact.

“This is likely to depend on the circumstances in each sector and organisation, recognising there is a balance between working flexibly beyond the traditional nine to five model but at the same time acknowledging the clear need for a work-life balance,” he said.

Why HR should consider the right to disconnect: 

Should UK employers offer the ‘right to disconnect’?

Staff working out of hours could be violating GDPR

UK’s long-hours working culture worst in EU