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The big switch-off: Workers want a legal right to ignore out of hours emails

The majority of employees would support a new law giving them a 'right to disconnect' from workplace communications.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

Remote working has made it harder for us to switch off from work.

Image: Westend61/GETTY

The majority of UK workers would support the introduction of new laws supporting a right to disconnect from their employer.

A survey of more than 1,000 UK adults by market research firm Ipsos found that six in 10 are in favour of introducing a law giving them the right to ignore work-related communications outside of their contracted hours.

More than half of UK workers deem it unacceptable for their employer to expect them to respond to emails texts, calls and instant messages sent by their boss during private or leisure time, the survey found. Sixty per cent would support the UK government introducing a right to disconnect law, including 34% who would strongly support it.

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Right now, two-thirds of UK workers said they participate in work-related communications outside of their working hours, with just 30% abstaining completely from communication with their workplace outside of their contracted hours.

While the extension of remote working has given greater flexibility to employees who can perform their roles outside of the office, it has also highlighted some of the challenges presented by heavily digitised work.

This situation is particularly true for workplaces with bring-your-own-device policies and for employees who take work devices home with them regularly, which can make it more difficult for employees to disconnect from work when they get home – particularly if they continue to receive or engage in workplace communications.

Burnout among tech and IT security staff has also become more acute, placing employers in a difficult situation as they attempt to plug skills gaps, stem staff churn, and face down a growing cybersecurity threat. Kelly Beaver, chief executive UK and Ireland at Ipsos, said mandated working-from-home policies during the pandemic had "blurred the lines between work and home life".

"There is clearly support for legislation that protects the work/life balance, but will something as prescriptive as legislation actually impinge on the flexibility many have embraced over the last two years?" said Beaver.

"Businesses should work with their employees to provide an environment that offers flexibility and a healthy work/life balance, so that we can all benefit from this new way of working."

A number of European countries have already moved forward with right-to-disconnect laws. Belgium, for example, recently introduced legislation that effectively bans civil service bosses from contacting employees when they are not at work, apart from in emergency or otherwise 'exceptional' circumstances.

Of the 67% of respondents who said they engage in workplace communications outside of their working hours, 40% respond to them and 34% proactively send communications themselves. Only 30% do not communicate with work outside of their official working hours. 

Individuals earning upwards of £55,000 a year are more likely to be checking, replying to and sending work-related communications outside of working hours: 82% say they do this compared with 65% of workers earning up to £54,999. 

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Younger people are most likely to believe such expectations are acceptable, Ipsos found: 56% of 16-34-year-olds deemed it acceptable for employers to expect their employees to check work-related communications out of hours, compared with 34% of 35-75-year-olds.

The research also indicated that opinion is split as to whether a right to disconnect should be given priority over flexible-working policies. A third (32%) of respondents said it is more important to give employees a right to ignore messages from their workplace outside of working hours than it is to give them greater flexibility around how they work. Almost four in 10 (37%) said each policy is equally important.

Only 11% of UK adults would be against the government introducing a right-to-disconnect law.

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