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Sunday, Sep 19, 2021

Working from home: Call to ban out-of-hours emails from bosses

Working from home: Call to ban out-of-hours emails from bosses

"Work has got more stressful over the last year," says Claire Mullaly.

"There's a pressure to check emails, jump on video calls and to be on hand at all hours of the day, and it's become harder to draw a line between work and home life."

Claire, an IT consultant from Northern Ireland, argues the situation facing her and millions of others working from home during the pandemic "isn't sustainable".

And, with many of its members warning that their mental health is being compromised, the trade union Prospect is calling for the government to give employees a legally binding "right to disconnect".

This would ban bosses from "routinely emailing or calling" outside set working hours.

Any emails sent at these times could also be automatically deleted to deter off-duty staff from continually checking their inbox.

"While digital technology has kept us safe during the pandemic, for millions of people, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, making it harder to fully switch off," says Prospect's deputy general secretary, Andrew Pakes.

The Office for National Statistics has found that 35.9% of the UK's employed population did at least some of their work from home last year.

This group - while saving time on commuting - did an average of six hours' unpaid overtime each week, it adds.

The right to disconnect has been law for four years in France, where companies are asked to set agreed "specific hours" for "teleworkers".

Ireland also brought in a code of practice last month, under which employers should add "footers and pop-up messages to remind employees... that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours".

Prospect, whose members include managers, civil servants, engineers and scientists, wants the UK government to set out similar protections in its Employment Bill, expected to be published later this year.

"Burning people out isn't good for workers or employers," says Claire. "We've got to give people time to switch off and recharge."

On the laptop before breakfast

Bank worker Omar says no-one he knows believes they can be as productive working from home as they can in the office, where they have access to big screens, technology and interacting with colleagues.

And at home, he found, work takes over your life.

"You're on your laptop before breakfast," he says. "When you're in the office there's the journey in, buying a coffee, chatting to a colleague and sitting down at your desk at 8.30 or 9am."

But companies and lawyers have raised doubts over whether the right to disconnect is feasible at a time when many employees are themselves asking for flexible working.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says it would be "very challenging" to make Prospect's proposal work.

"The big question is how do we create good ways of working that are good for people's wellbeing and how you improve people's work-life balance," he adds.

Respecting boundaries


The official advice across the UK currently is for people to work at home wherever possible.

To preserve wellbeing, the Mental Health Foundation recommends that bosses stay in daily contact with employees.

However, it says they must "respect the boundaries people have between work and home life".

"We recognise this has been an exceptionally difficult year, and that the pandemic has had an impact on mental health," a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson says.

"We are wholeheartedly committed to improving and upholding workers' rights and this is why we will fulfil a [Conservative Party] manifesto commitment to consult on making flexible work the default."

The government's Flexible Working Taskforce is investigating how "hybrid" work - split between home and the office/formal workplace - will operate after the pandemic.

This includes looking at the right to disconnect.

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