Right to disconnect: what is it and why does it matter?

With more employees continuing to work from home, increasing attention is being placed on the right to disconnect. This right fundamentally means that every employee is able to switch off outside of their normal working hours and enjoy their free time away from work without being disturbed, unless there is an emergency or there has been an agreement to remain ‘on call’. To fully understand how the right to disconnect works in practice, we can turn to our neighbours in Ireland, who have recently introduced a Code of Practice for employers on how to implement this, though not binding in the UK.

The three key rights enshrined in the Code are:

  • the right of an employee to not have to routinely perform work outside their normal working hours
  • the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours
  • the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (eg, by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours).

Whilst it is always good practice not to expect employees to work out of hours and therefore avoid contacting them during this time, the right to disconnect goes one step further. Not only does it prohibit this behaviour from management, it also gives employees the entitlement to switch off their communication devices and send automated emails when they are not available. The expectation is very much that if a member of staff is contacted out of hours, they are actively encouraged to only respond when back at work.

Why should employers explore this?

Although it may seem beneficial to an organisation that staff are regularly working out of hours to get jobs done and respond to queries, it can actually be very damaging. Staff who are not able to properly rest after a day’s work, and continue the stresses of work out of hours, can become burned out, less productive, and disillusioned in their role. This can lead to issues in retention and morale, things that can be very damaging for an organisation as a whole.

The right to disconnect works to counteract this, encouraging and indeed expecting staff to switch off when they are not working. Not only can it help promote greater staff wellbeing, it can also be an effective way for employers to demonstrate that they care for their employees – this can lead to higher retention of staff and a morale boost.

As more employers explore ways in which staff can continue to work from home on a more permanent basis, a right to disconnect could prove very appealing for many looking for new work. Employers should always remember that if they choose not to introduce something of this nature, a competitor might.

It should be noted that the UK government has not indicated plans to make such a right a legal requirement; nevertheless, as we look to a post-pandemic future that may involve more homeworking, it may be something that employers choose to explore themselves. Employers who choose to adopt this right should consider implementing a policy on it to help streamline the internal processes relating to their position.

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