There can’t be many employees who welcome the 10pm email, text or WhatsApp message from the boss requesting a presence at an 8am Zoom call the next morning. Or request that report you’re working on to be ready two days sooner than you’d budgeted for with a 6.00am call.

Whatever the reason, no matter how “important” for the business, is it fair to be sending messages to your employees when technically they’re not on your company time?  Could the message wait, can it be handled differently, isn’t this benefitting the sender by shifting an action from their inbox into another’s workload?

During the past 18 months the majority of us have experienced a greater demand for online connectivity and accessibility. Meetings via Zoom, Teams etc, webinars, online courses, team chats on WhatsApp, project updates on Monday and Slack, tipping over your storage limit on iCloud and Dropbox because almost all your information is now stored online.

Working from home can feel strangely liberating for some and restrictive for others, in truth we’ve all reacted in our own unique way. The fact is we’re pretty much all working longer hours and employers are seeing a benefit in capitalising on the reduction in commute times be seeing a greater level of output.

The BBC’s Technology Correspondent for many years Rory Cellan-Jones wrote an excellent book during the Lockdowns, chronicling his experiences meeting many and varied tech entrepreneur rock stars. His story starts with Steve Jobs launching the Apple iPhone in 2007.  The title of the book “Always On”, so very apt for our smartphone lives, with more computer power in our palms than was available to the brave astronauts who landed on the moon in 1969.  We can see and speak to anyone in the world (as long as the broadband connection permits). It’s true to say we are living in an incredible period of human evolution however we are at risk of turning ourselves into something rather less than human through our plugged-in lives.

It is in this “Always on” culture that employers should take stock and be cognisant of the harm of spending hours on end staring at screens and not taking enough time away from these addictive devices and apps.  The issue is made worse by our social and leisure tie also being entangled with programmes on devices be it social media, videos, games or podcasts we’re struggling to break free.

A right to disconnect would offer permission for employees to be truly “offline” and resting away from screen-time and enable time for properly switching off unless “on call” or there is a genuine emergency.

Earlier this year Ireland introduced a Right to Disconnect Code of Practice

In brief, their Right to Disconnect has three main elements:

  1. The right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours.
  2. The right to not be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours.
  3. The duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (e.g., by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours).

In Ireland such a code is not written into legislation however it may be used to support a dispute with an employer if they failed to adhere to the guidelines.

In simple terms this right to disconnect can be implemented in the same way a typical “out of office” arrangement is set when an employee is on annual leave.  Although there are incidents of contact with staff when on holiday it is often more readily accepted that annual leave time is sacrosanct, not to be interfered with.  If that is the case it is equally logical that any period not “in work” should be dealt with in a similar, respectful and considerate manner by the employer.

It is not healthy for staff to be “Always On” and through the pandemic we have seen cases of overwork, burn out and adverse impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

A considerate, mindful company affording staff space and time and encouraging a healthy attitude to work vs home and leisure will attract more interest from future candidates and build trust and loyalty amongst existing staff.

As it stands the UK government has no plan to introduce a legal “Right to Disconnect” or even move towards this with a similar approach to that of Ireland and their Code of Practice. Despite this our collective experiences throughout the pandemic would suggest it would prove a popular and forward thinking move to create and introduce your own policy.

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