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What is the "right to disconnect" and why is it important
16 Mar 2022
by Elsa Brain

What is the “right to disconnect”?

The right to disconnect is the right of workers to disengage from work outside of normal working hours. This means that it would not be compulsory or expected to respond to work-related calls, messages, or emails once working hours have ended.

This proposed right would also protect employees from being punished for not doing so, including being fired or suspended, denied time off, or not given promotions.

Since 2020¹ we have seen a massive rise in flexible working, meaning that the lines between work and home are more blurred than ever. With a newfound focus on wellbeing and an unprecedented working situation for both employees and employers, it only makes sense that we would turn our thoughts towards digital wellbeing, downtime, and how effectively we use technology. As such, we are seeing more and more campaigning to introduce legislation to protect workers' wellbeing and employment rights².

France led the way with the right to disconnect

From the 1st of January 2017, French companies with more than 50 workers have been obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, including outlines as to the hours’ employees are expected not to send or reply to emails³. Employees are protected from punishment because they have not responded during these hours, and employers could face sanctions for contacting them unnecessarily.

Belgium, Italy, Spain, Ireland, the Philippines, Portugal, and Ontario, Canada have all laid out a form of legislation. Most recommended setting hours in which an employee is not expected to engage in digital communication.

Portugal stands strong for workers’ right to disconnect

In November of 2021, Portugal became perhaps the most stringent with a law banning out-of-hours communication⁴. Ana Catarina Mendes of the Portuguese Socialist Party claimed that in the ‘unequal relationship’ of boss and worker, the worker should have the right to ‘...switch off their mobile phone, close their laptop, or ignore phone calls that arrive in the middle of dinner with their family,’ and that simply suggesting that right is not enough. She stated ‘...any abuse that conflicts with that right must be deterred through sanctions.’

UK reactions

Portuguese sentiments are echoed by many campaigning in the UK. Some argue that legislation may not go far enough to protect the population from overwork, and more careful consideration of the complexities of today’s working environment, the tasks workers must do when home, and how much autonomy workers have is needed⁵. 

A report by Autonomy indicated an ‘epidemic of hidden overtime’ in working from home, especially amongst women, who it found were also 43% more likely to have increased their working hours than men⁶. Housework and childcare also contribute to the workload of many but are unpaid and often unconsidered by employers. Uninterrupted rest time is vital for mental health and wellbeing, which in turn has a profound effect on employee productivity and the quality of their work⁷, meaning the protection of this time could benefit not only employees but also employers.

Where does the UK stand with laws on the right to disconnect?

As of yet, there is no official legislation for the right to disconnect in the UK. Despite this, the movement is gaining much momentum, and Labour has shown support⁸. Angela Rayner, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work and deputy leader of the Labour party, stated that ‘...there must be a right to disconnect. It is only fair that workers can establish healthy boundaries, switching off and disconnecting from work….’ This is a huge step forward for workers' rights in Britain and one that will hopefully be reflected in wider government discussions as we move forward into 2022.


References:

¹ ACAS - New study reveals half of employers expect more flexible working requests from staff after the pandemic is over

² Right to Disconnect UK

³ BBC World New - French workers get 'right to disconnect' from emails out of hours

The Guardian - We stopped Portugal’s bosses contacting staff outside work hours. Here’s why. 

The right to disconnect: Why legislation doesn’t address the real problems with work 

Autonomy - The right to disconnect 

Trello Blogs - Why Restorative Rest Makes You More Productive And How To Achieve It

The Guardian - UK workers need right to disconnect amid ‘overtime epidemic’, says report