Last month, the Scottish government committed to having “meaningful discussions” on providing a “right to disconnect” to government employees. The “right to disconnect” focuses on allowing workers to disconnect from their jobs outside their contractual working hours. The announcement is particularly relevant given recent government guidance on working from home. There are regular complaints that remote working makes it difficult to properly “disconnect” outside working hours as the distinction between work and home life is blurred.
The Scottish government made the commitment within its public sector pay policy document for 2022-2023 as part of its wider budget announcements. Within this policy, it also introduced a “requirement for all [public sector] employers to have meaningful discussions with staff representatives about the Right to Disconnect for all staff, discouraging an ‘always on’ culture“. The policy frames this as “providing a balance between the opportunities and flexibility offered by technology and our new ways of working to support the need for staff to feel able to switch off from work“.
Although this announcement makes Scotland the first UK nation to show a positive commitment to establishing a “right to disconnect”, this is not a new concept. In a previous blog post, we looked at how many countries, including France and Spain, introduced legislation to this effect long before the pandemic started. Similarly, this year the Irish government introduced a specific code which granted the right to all workers. These examples give an indication of what this right might look like if introduced in the UK. It is likely to give employees the right not to engage with work correspondence (including emails, telephone calls and instant messaging) outside their contracted working hours. It also typically protects employees from being subjected to detriments by their employers for exercising this right.
Whilst the Scottish government’s proposal signifies that some change is to be expected, at this stage this is confined to public sector employees and it is not yet clear what the scope, detail or timescale of any potential change is likely to be.
Elsewhere in the UK, there have been calls for the upcoming Employment Bill to introduce a “right to disconnect” for all UK workers, but the government has not made any commitment as of yet. Against the backdrop of the continuing pandemic and pressures on parliamentary time, it may be a while before any change is introduced which is applicable to all UK employees.
In the absence of any formal legislative change, proactive employers may wish to consider their own approach to the “right to disconnect”. It forms part of the wider theme of employee welfare, particularly in the current context of mass homeworking which many employees have reported makes maintaining a healthy work-life separation difficult. The “right to disconnect” can benefit both employees and employers. Getting the work-life balance right can increase employee satisfaction and reduce staff burn-out, which can in turn aid productivity and the retention of the workforce. Employers could engage with this by reviewing their current policies and practices on communications outside work hours, or by gauging employees’ experiences through surveys or informal feedback sessions to evaluate whether employees would welcome such changes. In the context of evolving restrictions coming out of the pandemic, employers could also consider reviewing their employee welfare support programmes and communications to ensure that employees feel adequately supported when working remotely.