Six in 10 UK adults are in favour of establishing a legal “right to disconnect”, which would allow employees to ignore work-related communications such as emails and texts outside their contracted working hours, new research from Ipsos shows.
According to the research, 67% of UK workers said they participate in work-related communications outside their official working hours, with about four in 10 either checking or replying to these communications, and one-third saying they proactively send them.
Ipsos found that although only three in 10 do not communicate with work outside their official working hours, more than half of UK adults (55%) said it is unacceptable for employers to expect staff to even check for work-related communications after hours.
In terms of support for a statutory right to disconnect, 60% said they were in favour of the government introducing it in new legislation, with 34% strongly in support. Only one in 10 were against such a measure.
The research also found that opinion was split over whether to prioritise flexibility or a right to disconnect, with roughly one-third preferring the latter, a quarter preferring the former, and 40% saying both are equally important.
“The pandemic has had a huge impact on our working patterns, giving businesses and employees an opportunity to re-evaluate the way we work,” said Kelly Beaver, chief executive of UK and Ireland at Ipsos. “For many, this has resulted in increased flexibility, but there is also the blurring of 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? 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.”
Separate polling from Prospect Union – which represents science, tech and other specialist workers – from April 2021 also found that a right to disconnect has significant support from workers and trade unions in the UK.
“This latest research from Ipsos is further evidence that our always-on culture has become a significant and growing problem for too many people,” said Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of Prospect Union. He said there need to be safeguards in place to tackle the risks of surveillance technology and other work pressures that contribute to people feeling they cannot switch off from work.
“Digital technology has undoubtedly kept us safe, connected and working during the pandemic, but for many, the lines between work and home have become blurred, making it harder to switch off work and contributing to burnout and poor mental health,” said Pakes.
“Employers need to recognise that this is a problem that will ultimately result in lost days, decreased productivity, a demotivated workforce and burnout.”
In the same month as the Prospect poll, workers in Ireland had a right to disconnect enshrined in an official code of practice, and the Scottish government announced its support for similar measures in December 2021.
In February 2022, the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organisation published a joint technical brief on healthy and safe teleworking which said that enterprises and governments should place clear limits on invasive workplace surveillance and support workers’ “right to disconnect” to reduce the negative physical and mental health impacts of digitally enabled remote working practices.
Although the briefing did not explicitly call for governments to implement a right to disconnect, it said: “It is important to organise telework to meet the needs of both workers and the organisation. This requires a focus on outputs or outcomes, rather than process.” It stressed that employers should actively avoid contacting workers outside scheduled work hours.
At the start of March 2022, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) also warned that the intrusive and increasing use of surveillance technology in the workplace was “spiralling out of control” and could lead to widespread discrimination, work intensification and unfair treatment without stronger regulation to protect workers.
“Employers are delegating serious decisions to algorithms – such as recruitment, promotions and sometimes even sackings,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.
“Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI and be protected from its punitive ways of working. It is time for ministers to bring forward the long-awaited Employment Bill to give workers a right to disconnect and properly switch off outside of working hours.”