Union Prospect pushes for ‘Right to Disconnect’ policy in the UK

A trade union in the UK has called for the inclusion of a “Right to Disconnect” policy in the upcoming Employment Bill.

Seemingly overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of people and enterprises globally. Even organizations with more progressive workplace cultures, such as Silicon Valley companies, are struggling to direct their staff to work remotely in an effort to keep employees healthy and slow the spread of the deadly virus. And organizations with more traditional workplace cultures before the crisis are finding they need to quickly adapt for what may be the future of work.

In the midst of this shift towards a post-pandemic world, a trade union in the UK has called for the inclusion of a “Right to Disconnect” policy in the upcoming Employment Bill.

The Union Prospect, which represents scientists, engineers and tech workers, wants companies to be legally required to negotiate with workers and agree rules on when people cannot be contacted for work-related matters.

UK right to disconnect policy

Roughly 35% of remote workers said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic.

A poll conducted by Opinium found that two-thirds of workers currently working remotely supported the proposed “Right to Disconnect” policy and wanted the UK to follow the lead of countries such as Ireland in helping workers who are struggling to maintain work-life balance.

Clive Owen, who works in the software industry, said that while working remotely had helped organizations “protect the health of its talent,” it had also “made it challenging for workers to keep their work-life separate from personal life.”

“The only time my mind gets to breathe is during weekends. I make sure to ignore any work-related emails and do what I want. But after that, I’m back to dreading my existence,” he said.

As we think of how to implement future of work trends, it is important to acknowledge the vast set of challenges employees will face during social distancing. A working parent may be under intense pressure to juggle childcare needs or manage homeschooling in the middle of their workday, while a single, extroverted employee working alone from a small apartment may grapple with feelings of quiet, grinding loneliness. As such, their ability/desire to participate in a virtual workplace may differ, but all workers can largely benefit from rules about the boundaries for remote or hybrid working.

Reinforcing this difference between what is called ‘work’ and ‘home’ will help increase engagement and happiness, which has to be favorable for organizations and workers.

Here are a few insightful responses to the survey of 2,428 people, including 617 who are working from office. “I love working from home but because I have no change of environment it can be difficult to forget about work even after 5 p.m.” Another commented: “I feel like I’m living in the office rather than working from home.”

Roughly 35% of remote workers also said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic, while 30% said they were working extra hours unpaid, with 18% reporting at least four additional unpaid hours a week.

Earlier this month, Ireland introduced a right to disconnect, allowing workers to not have to work outside the set 9 to 5. The Irish deputy prime minister and trade minister, Leo Varadkar, said that while the coronavirus epidemic’s impact has been negative, it has also offered “an opportunity to make permanent changes for the better” so that organizations can follow the new law that would help workers “strike a better work-life balance.”

The Union Prospect has requested the UK business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to amend a similar policy and make sure it is included in the upcoming employment bill promised in the government’s last Queen’s speech, one of the several pieces of laws delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jane Harper
Writer. Human resources expert and consultant. Follow @thehrdigest on Twitter

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