Should workers have a legal right to disconnect?

    Business Spotlight 10/2021
    people working from home
    © sgursozlu/
    Von Julian Earwaker


    “If we don't tackle the ‘always-on’ culture, we’ll create big problems”
    (Andrew Pakes)

    Andrew Pakes

    We’ve experienced the benefits of digital technology during the pandemic, keeping us safe and connected while many of us work from home. We’ve also suffered the frustration and exhaustionErschöpfungexhaustion resulting from endless e-meetings, emails, messages and calls at all times of the day. evidenceBeleg(e)Evidence shows that working from home means longer hours, with more intense, changing work pattern; patternArbeitsablauf, -rhythmus; Musterwork patterns, and that’s having a negative impactAuswirkungimpact on our well-being and mental health. If we don’t to tackle sth.etw. angehentackle the “always-onhier: immer onlinealways-on” culture, we’ll be creating big problems for the “new normal”. 

    The right to disconnectRecht auf Nichterreichbarkeitright to disconnect recognizes that each company is different, with different expectations. It’s not about one-size-fits-allhier: Einheitsmodellone-size-fits-all, or people refusing to work at certain times. But employers must be obligated to to negotiate (sth.)(etw.) verhandelnnegotiate and set rules with their workforceBelegschaft, Mitarbeiter(innen)workforce about how flexible working and “digital disconnect” can work. Employers need to trust their workers and build on the cooperation we’ve seen over the past 18 months or so. 

    The linehier: Grenzelines between home life and work have increasingly to blurverschwimmenblurred. Employees are frequently expected to work unpaid overtime. If your manager sends you an email in the evening, do you respond to it or not? You wouldn’t expect your boss to knock on your front door late on Friday night and say, “I’ve got some work for us to talk about”. Why should we expect it of employees digitally? 

    researchForschung, Studie(n)Research shows that UK homeworkers are less likely to be to promote sb.jmdn. befördernpromoted or to get a bonus. We could be institutionalizing new forms of discrimination if people are told to use their to use one’s discretion when doing sth.etw. nach eigenem Ermessen tundiscretion when answering work emails and calls outside normal working hours. There is real pressure to respond, but people should have the right to refuse. 

    Many countries have already brought in successful disconnect laws. Major companies such as Telefónica, Renault and Mercedes-Benz have to implement sth.etw. umsetzen; hier: abschließenimplemented agreements. The right to disconnect means a greater partnership between employers and workers to find joint solutions that enable businesses to to thriveflorierenthrive — and workers to to maintain sth.etw. bewahrenmaintain their work-life balance. 

    Andrew Pakes is research director at the British trade unionGewerkschafttrade union Prospect



    “We can’t just sit on our emails till Monday morning comes around”
    (Len Shackleton)

    Len Shackleton

    issueProblem, FrageIssues of connectivity and pressure on workers are best dealt with by individual organizations, not by new laws. We already have far too much regulation of the labour market. The danger of having a legal right to disconnect is that it could to provoke sb. to do sth.hier: jmdn. veranlassen, etw. zu tunprovoke employers to change the basis on which they offer flexible working. The new-found benefits of being able to fit work alongside home and family life may be lost if employees are unable to pick sth. uphier: etw. empfangen und erledigenpick up messages, calls and emails as expected. 

    Many jobs require people to be available out of hourshier: außerhalb der Arbeitszeitout of hours. Even with a right to disconnect, employers will still expect this work to be done, which will add pressure to the working day. If we think we can legislate to make firms behave better, we should be careful about what we wish for, because firms may not react as we would like. 

    Those in favour of the right to disconnect seem to imagine a very rigidstarr, unflexibelrigid way of working. But most jobs these days are not like that. We often need flexibility to do the job properly. We can’t just sit on our emails till Monday morning comes around. We have to respond. What if we’re dealing with people in different time zones, for example? Employers have a duty of careSorgfaltspflichtduty of care to protect workers from too much pressure. If they fail to do so, then health and safety laws and employment tribunalArbeitsgerichtemployment tribunals can be used. We have a huge variety of employment contracts in the UK, far more than in many European countries. So, a one-size-fits-all legal solution isn’t going to work. In many of the nations that have introduced right-to-disconnect legislation, employers are following the rules, but not the spirit of the law. Increased rights to flexible working and a right to disconnect inherentlygrundsätzlichinherently conflict with each other. This creates problems for employers and employees and their respective expectations. It potentially increases tensionSpannungtensions at work. 

    We are in an extremely fluidflüssigfluid situation at the moment. The government would be wise to wait until we are finally through the pandemic before making any such change to employment legislation.

    Len Shackleton is a professor of economics at the University of Buckingham

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