Do you ever feel like you just can’t switch off from work?
Do you catch yourself checking emails on your phone at all hours? Or taking a call from the office when you’re supposed to be off work? Well, you’re not alone.
Even before the pandemic, digital technology meant that millions of workers were struggling to separate work and home life, with emails pinging on their phones and laptops deep into the evenings and weekends.
This ‘always-on’ culture has accelerated in recent months, as the very technology that allowed so many to work at home during the pandemic, also became a means of keeping employees reachable at every hour of the day.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We want to see employers and workers agreeing new rules to stop the digital leash of constant working, and to make flexible working work.
Government should take the lead on this by making it a legal duty to agree these rules and set boundaries between work and life.
For some, this culture may not be a big problem, and of course, during those early months of the pandemic, it was all hands to the pump in many businesses and industries.
But for others, the mental pressure caused by constant availability, and the stress of knowing that failing to respond might harm your career, has been a source of significant anxiety.
Recent research by Aviva found that 44% of workers feel they can never switch off from work due to what they see as their employer’s preference for an always-on, ever-present culture.
Prospect’s own research found a similar number who have experienced negative mental health outcomes in the pandemic due to the blurred lines between work and home.
There’s nothing flexible about flexible work if we simply replace presenteeism in the office with digital presenteeism, regardless of where or when you work.
In this context, we need to tackle the ‘always on’. culture. As we continue with increased home and hybrid working, and with more workers set to work flexibly in the future, it is more important than ever that we take steps to rein in the trend, help workers to unplug, and avoid burnout.
That is why Prospect has been campaigning for the Government to introduce a Right to Disconnect either in the Employment Bill or similar legislation.
Although sometimes misrepresented as a ban on after-hours emails, the Right To Disconnect is not about banning your boss from sending you an email at 5.05pm.
That would be a blunt tool that would be unnecessarily restrictive for both businesses and workers, especially with flexible working and irregular hours set to grow massively in the coming years.
We need to change the culture of work, not just the location
Fundamentally, the Right to Disconnect is about workload, work culture and ensuring flexible working works.
We need to change the culture of work, not just the location. Rest time is just as important as work and if we constantly eat into that rest, we cease to be at our most productive.
Prospect is calling for an obligation on employers to set out a plan with their workforce about when and how staff can be contacted for work purposes.
This could be as light-touch as making it clear throughout the company that there is no obligation to respond to hour of hours emails, or delaying sending messages until the recipient is back at work.
Or setting rules for the use of work Slack or Whatsapp groups so that managers sending messages at 8pm on a Thursday night don’t expect answers from colleagues who don’t start work until the morning.
This won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for someone in accounts will inevitably be different to the rules that are appropriate for emergency workers.
If we don’t have these conversations, we risk adding to the stress of work rather than redesigning work for a flexible age. The emphasis would be on ensuring employers discuss the issue with staff and formulate policies that enable people to unplug – something good employers are already doing.
Where unions are present in a workplace these conversations are a natural extension of those already taking place on pay and terms and conditions. Good employers should be encouraging these conversations through unions, works councils and engaging staff.
France and Ireland already have versions of a Right to Disconnect on the statute book and the idea is gaining ground at an EU level as well. Even a police force in Australia has negotiated a Right to Disconnect policy, one that doesn’t stop them from responding to emergencies but does mean that they have the opportunity to get a break from routine work.
If we are not careful, the UK will be left behind.
This is a modern dilemma of work that must be solved before it is too late. Digital technology can support flexible working, but it can also cross the line. We wouldn’t accept our bosses banging on our front door on a Friday night to then sit at our dining tables demanding answers about work while we eat. So why do we accept this digitally?
Prospect is already talking to employers about how we ensure new working patterns work for employees and business, but we need leadership to get this idea moving across the economy.
Introducing a Right to Disconnect would accelerate this conversation in workplaces and help get us to a place where we can face the future of work with confidence, whatever it looks like.
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