The Rights of Employees To Disconnect From Work

Year Published: 2018

Will taking calls outside working hours soon be a distant memory?

Karen Barker, Partner and Head of the Employment Law & HR team at SAS Daniels

Karen Barker, Partner and Head of Employment Law & HR

The Office for National Statistics recently produced data showing that in comparison to other G7 members the UK “had below average real productivity growth in both output per hour and output per worker”. This is against a backdrop of British employees working longer hours than ever before. The question this raises is why?

One line of thought is that because we are working longer hours, this is making us more tired and stressed which in turn is making us less productive as a nation. Related to this is the notion that we are struggling to switch off from work and we are increasingly answering work related calls and emails outside working hours. Should you have the ability to literally ‘switch off’ that company mobile?

You may be surprised to hear some countries have taken steps to legally prevent employers from expecting or forcing employees to be constantly available outside what would normally be their standard working hours.

The French Legislate on Intrusion

France was the first of these countries enacting a law that from 1 January 2017 companies are obliged to negotiate with employees to agree their rights to switch off and reduce the intrusion of work into their personal life. However, even prior to this point French law recognised a contractual right to disconnect for employees working from home.

A few weeks ago, a French tribunal ruled on the first major decision since the law was introduced. The French arm of British firm Rentokil, was forced to pay 60,000 euros to an employee because it failed to observe his right to disconnect. This case related to a director whose mobile phone number was handed out to colleagues who were told to call him outside work should a problem arise. He succeeded in arguing this effectively meant he was on-call and should be paid for his time.

Volkswagen’s policy to disconnect from work

Governments in Italy and countries further afield like the Philippines have adopted similar measures to France. Companies in Germany have pro-actively taken the approach themselves to increase productivity. In 2011, Volkswagen adopted a policy which prevented email severs sending emails to employee mobiles between 6pm and 7am. Also, Daimler in 2014 introduced software which could automatically delete emails whilst an employee was on holiday.

The Working Time Regulations 1998

Many are now questioning whether it is only a matter of time before the UK introduces a law providing employees with the right to disconnect. In the UK there is little law surrounding an employee’s ability to switch off. The closest we have is The Working Time Regulations 1998 which provides rules on rest periods and working hours. Other than this and basic Health and Safety Law, employers and employees are governed by their contractual relationship which  may require an employee to work on-call or additional hours to meet the needs of the business. Payment for such extra work will usually be a contractual matter.

For the foreseeable future it seems unlikely the UK will have any right to disconnect. Each industry and business has its own needs and demands but it will be for employers to work out how to increase productivity. Eventually the government may take steps to force employees to switch off – only after this is done will we be able to tell what the impact is.

For further information on an employee’s right to disconnect from work or any other Employment Law issue, please contact Karen Barker on 0161 475 7667 or email [email protected].

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