Portugal has become the latest country to reset the rules on when workers get to switch off, with a ban on bosses regularly contacting their employees out of hours. Prospect has been leading calls in the UK for action to tackle the always-on culture, including a British version of the “right to disconnect”.
Even before the pandemic, digital technology meant that millions of us struggled to separate our work and home lives, with email and WhatsApp pinging night and day.
For many of us, working from home during the pandemic brought these challenges into even sharper relief. That is why Portugal joined the growing list of countries trying to challenge the always-on work culture.
Recent research by Aviva found that 44 per cent of workers feel they can never switch off due to what they see as their employer’s preference for an always-on, ever-present culture. Prospect’s own research found a similar number who have experienced negative mental health outcomes in the pandemic due to the blurred lines between work and home.
The technology that has allowed so many of us to work from home has also become the means of keeping us reachable at every hour of the day.
So, if you catch yourself checking emails on your phone at all hours or taking a call from the office when you’re supposed to be off work, well, you are not alone.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Prospect wants to see employers and workers agreeing to new rules to stop the digital leash of constant working, and to make flexible working work. Being able to switch off is an important ingredient in making flexible work a success. There’s nothing flexible about flexible work if we simply replace physical presenteeism in the office with digital presenteeism elsewhere. As a cross-party report on the future of work said last week: “Meaningful flexibility is also closely associated with an ability to disconnect outside of working hours.”
This could be as light-touch as making it clear throughout the company that there is no obligation to respond to out of hours emails, or delaying sending messages until the recipient is back at work. Or setting rules for the use of work Slack or WhatsApp groups so that managers sending messages at 8pm on a Thursday night don’t expect answers from colleagues who don’t start work until the morning.
This won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for one type of job will inevitably be different to the rules that are appropriate to workers in a different industry.
France and Ireland already have versions of a “right to disconnect” on the statute book and the idea is gaining ground at an EU level as well. Even a police force in Australia has negotiated a similar policy, one that doesn’t stop them from responding to emergencies but does mean that they have the opportunity to get a break from routine work.
If we don’t have these conversations, we risk adding to the stress of work rather than redesigning work for a flexible age. The emphasis should be on ensuring employers discuss the issue with staff and formulate policies that enable people to unplug – something good employers are already doing. Where unions are present in a workplace, these conversations are a natural extension of those already taking place on pay and terms and conditions. This needs to be part of a bigger discussion about the future of work, and we’re calling on the government to take a lead on this by setting out a duty on employers to work with their staff on disconnect policies and in new digital protections against invasive surveillance and monitoring.
This is a modern dilemma of work that must be solved before it is too late. Digital technology can support flexible working, but it can also cross the line. We wouldn’t accept our bosses knocking on our front door on a Friday night to then sit at our dining tables demanding answers about work while we eat. So why do we accept this digitally?
Andrew Pakes is research director at Prospect