We all deserve the right to switch off, but is new legislation necessary?

Labour Party plans to prevent bosses from contacting staff outside office hours will only add to the minefield of employment laws businesses already have to navigate
Employee Checks Work Phone While In Bed

Everyone will be familiar with the sense of dread that comes with an unexpected phone call from the boss. Seeing their name pop-up on the screen after 6pm is inevitably met with a string of worries: why are they contacting me now? Is there a problem? Should I pick up?

But with Labour announcing new plans to introduce a ‘right to switch off’ for workers, these concerns could soon be a thing of the past. Explaining the need for a new policy to address this issue, Labour deputy leader Angela Raynor told the Financial Times that “constant emails and calls outside of work should not be the norm and is harming work/life balance for many”. 

The paper reports that a restriction on contacting employees outside of work time will form part of Labour’s manifesto commitments on employment reform, as it gears up for the next general election.

Addressing the always-on work culture

There is a definite need to address the always-on culture that has emerged since the pandemic. A poll from recruitment firm Hays found that 52% of professionals reported working longer hours when working remotely than before Covid, with a quarter putting in an additional 10 hours from home each week. 

Emails and calls from managers outside regular working hours are partly to blame for this. With everyone connected to work management apps on their home devices, staff are more easy to contact than ever before. But whether a new right to disconnect is necessary to re-establish boundaries is up for debate.

One of the great benefits of remote working is that it allows people to introduce more flexibility to their working schedules. Individuals can now complete household tasks or go to the gym during the time that they would have previously been required to be in the office, in the promise that the lost time can be repaid either before or after the usual working day. By returning to the idea of strict office hours it could undermine the autonomy that many people have gained. 

Parents or those with caring responsibilities, who chose to work different hours to fit in with other commitments, may also be negatively impacted. Any change to the law regarding the right to disconnect will need to consider the needs of the individual, while preserving the advantages of more flexible work arrangements.

This is before taking into consideration those that don’t work regular hours or businesses with a global footprint. Contacting teams in other time zones, meeting the demands of clients or working unusual shift patterns may all require bosses to contact staff out-of-office hours on the odd occasion. It seems heavy handed that every request from managers made outside the usual nine-to-five, could face repercussions.

Adding to the employment tribunal backlog

Raynor has suggested that implementation would follow similar legislation introduced in Spain, Portugal and France. UK employment rights are currently enforced through the tribunal process. Although this makes introducing a right to switch off relatively simple, enforcement will be reliant on individual workers to raise any infringements through the tribunal process.

The latest data shows that there are more than 50,000 outstanding employment tribunal cases. This backlog is creating headaches for the businesses defending these claims and the individuals involved, who are sometimes having to wait up to two years for a judgement.

Adding to the numerous amendments to the Employee Rights Act will only further complicate matters for businesses and HR teams and will only add to this tribunal backlog, meaning those with more serious claims get left in limbo for longer.

Ultimately, government intervention feels unnecessary. Instead, it should be up to workers to establish their own boundaries. If you don’t want to receive out-of-hours messages, then simply switch Slack notifications off. If scrolling work emails on the weekend is likely to make you feel anxious, then put your work laptop down.

It is true that some bosses may need reminding of the importance of proper work/life balance but the power to switch off is already in employee hands, we just have to use it.