Is the ‘right to disconnect’ a red herring?

24 January 2022

In recent weeks the ‘right to disconnect’ has been re-emerging as a potential policy of interest.

As many of us are still working from home, its renewed impetus is focused on protecting workers – via legislation – from a barrage of out-of-hours work communications by removing access or prohibiting contact at set times. But as ‘right to disconnect’ initiatives gain traction internationally, we ask whether the concept is merely a ‘red herring’, placing the blame for our ‘always-on’ cultures on digital communications, and failing to recognise that simply cutting off one’s access to work at certain times of the day or week does not reduce the work itself?

What ‘right to disconnect’ policies often fail to acknowledge is that digital communications are just the channel for work. Removing the channel (at certain times) doesn’t actually remove the work, and can falsely attribute our high-intensity work cultures to the presence of email, slack or other means of communication. Whilst we acknowledge that digital communications make it easier for people to bring tasks home and to work beyond ‘traditional’ working hours, it is rarely the tool itself that is the problem. Rather, it is how the tool is being used and, more importantly, why people are using it out-of-hours.

We have four concerns about whether ‘right to disconnect’ policies can really solve these problems.

1 The real problem is workload

First, employees will often cite email and other digital communications as causes of work stress. However, a study in 2011 found that people have a tendency to ‘blame’ email for being overworked, even when other elements of workload (e.g. the number of meetings) have also increased. This is because, when we are stretched within our working days, the tasks that we leave to do later are those which are not location dependent.

Yet, if we cut off people’s access to email and digital comms out of hours, the workload still remains. We worry that imposing bans could force workers to deal with digital comms during ‘normal’ hours, with non-digital aspects of work then being pushed into leisure time (e.g. report writing, research). It could also mean that workers increase use of personal email and smartphone apps to communicate with colleagues, with ramifications for data confidentiality and ownership.

2 People want–and need–to work at different times

The second concern relates to more extreme applications of the ‘right to disconnect’ when access to servers or communication systems are actively switched off at certain times (e.g. on weekends, after 6pm, when on vacation). Where is the evidence that turning off digital communications at pre-specified and regulated times helps people? There is plenty of evidence, of course, that taking time away from work can deliver psychological and work performance benefits. Some research has even found that just the expectation of work-related communications in leisure or holiday time can trigger an anxiety response, even if no such communication happens. Overall, the evidence is compelling: people need time off from work on a regular basis, in order to recover their energies and work effectively. They also need to know that their ‘time off’ is protected and that they won’t be expected to engage in any work activities.

However, what the research evidence is yet to reveal is whether removing people’s access to digital communications at prescribed times of the day or week helps to improve well-being, engagement and productivity. As yet, research has not shown whether workers benefit from restricted access to digital communications at specific, regular times.

Some people may want to have access to communications ‘after-hours’, and take their rest time at different periods.

We believe that employers should be discouraging ‘always on’ cultures and the upsurge in work intensification, which can damage our mental well-being. However, at present, providing blanket policies that remove and restrict access to work communications at potentially arbitrary and pre-specified times, is not backed by research evidence.

3 The need to promote inclusive workspaces

Relatedly, our third concern is that to be an inclusive workforce, we need to provide the flexibility for workers to work times of the day/week that suit their lives and responsibilities. Some people are happy to deal with their digital comms outside of work hours when they have ‘headspace’ to concentrate more. Others (e.g. entrepreneurs) can get a ‘buzz’ out of their work and positively enjoy being contactable 24/7. We are mindful of the autonomy paradox – the feeling of freedom that technology can give you, which can result in people paradoxically being tethered to one’s phone and compelled to constantly connect. However, suggesting that all workers should disconnect because it isn’t ‘good’ for them, might be patronising, can stigmatise certain groups, and can remove some workers’ sense of control.

Employers need to find a way of allowing people genuine freedom to work in the way that suits them, without imposing ‘blanket’ restrictions that take little account of personal preferences.

4 There is little evidence that legislation leads to enforcement or change

Finally, from a practical perspective, enforcing the right to disconnect is unlikely to be a simple task. The French approach, for example, has resulted in almost no real change and certainly only a handful of legal challenges (UK company, Rentokil Initial was fined €60k in 2018). This may be because enforcement of this kind of regulation is notoriously difficult and that the aim of introducing it was less to do with prosecuting non-compliant companies and more to do with sending a message to business that work-life balance and mental health are part of their wider social responsibilities.

It could be argued that, here in the UK, we already have regulations which require employers to assess psychosocial risk and to safeguard the mental health of employees under the ‘duty of care’ to staff. Our track record of enforcement here, however, is poor. It is debatable therefore whether ‘right to disconnect’ regulations will fare any better.

The bottom-line is that, whether or not we can access our email at 3am does not negate the fact that many UK workers remain overloaded and work in organisations where job demands are becoming more intense. Attributing this to digital communications alone seems overly simplistic.

Instead, in an age of hybrid working, we should be pitching for a ‘fine to be flexible’ culture.

This means placing less onus on restricting people’s channels of work, or setting times when they ‘should’ switch off.  Instead, organisations need to address the overwork culture and trust people with the autonomy to enjoy periods every day where they can rest. Catchy one-size-fits-all policies like the ‘right to disconnect’ come with the best of intentions, but unless we acknowledge that it isn’t the communication channel but the underlying work that causes people to feel strain, exhaustion and burnout, our always-on cultures will never be satisfactorily tackled.

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