Remote Time and Attendance

The Right To Disconnect in the UK and Ireland

Explaining the Right to Disconnect in the UK, Ireland and Europe...
Sean QuinnPosted on Monday, August 7th 2023

With the rise of flexible and remote working, most of our work has now moved online, so being constantly plugged in to our devices (even at home) has become second nature. In many businesses, this has developed into an expectation that employees should be reachable at all times, regardless of their actual paid working hours.

Some argue that the blurring of the lines between work and home allows for some flexibility - for example, parents can still be reached if needed when on the school run. But the constant need to check emails and answer the phone can have a detrimental effect on people's personal lives and wellbeing, causing undue stress; which has now prompted many employees to demand the right to disconnect.

What is the Right to Disconnect?

The 'Right to Disconnect' describes the right of workers to mentally disengage from work outside of normal working hours, by not monitoring email or app notifications. It also ensures that employees are not penalised for disengaging, so their failure to action emails outside of working hours could not be reason for a disciplinary or be used to rule them out from promotion.

The right to disconnect generally discourages co-workers from contacting each other regarding work matters outside of normal core times, aiming to remove the expectation on others to respond when they are not working.

Is it illegal to contact employees after work?

As of 2023, the right to disconnect from work isn't enshrined in law in the UK.

However, in some regions of the EU, this concept has made it into real legislation and employers must honour their employees' right to disconnect.

In Ireland, the Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect sets out 3 core principles, which employers should follow. These include the right to not engage with additional work outside their normal hours, the right to not be penalised for disengaging, and a responsibility to respect other employees' right to disconnect too. Although failing to follow this code doesn't constitute a criminal offence, it can be used as evidence if an employee makes a case against their employer regarding their working time.

In France, agreements have been made between employers, employees and trade unions which protect employees' right to switch off outside of work, alongside other improvements to the quality of their working life. In 2014, an agreement in the engineering and consulting sector went as far to oblige employees to switch off their communication devices during the mandatory 11 hour rest periods between working days.

In Portugal, the right to disconnect is also protected by law. Employers who breach this right by contacting their remote employees outside of their working hours can face severe penalties (up to €9,690) if there is not a genuine, legitimate emergency that requires out-of-hours contact.

Why do employees need the right to disconnect?

Currently, almost 90% of employers admit to contacting their team outside of normal hours, with a third saying this is a regular occurance. Although many bosses may think these out-of-hours calls are inconsequential and necessary, 36% of employees hate receiving these calls.

Over time, the expectation to respond to calls and emails outside of their scheduled hours can erode an employees ability to switch off and relax. This intrusion into their personal life can have serious long term impacts; studies have now shown that those who are contacted outside of work have a higher incidence of health problems, than those employees who are never contacted and are able to disconnect fully from work.

Will the UK enact the Right to Disconnect?

Support from employees for a legal right to disconnect is growing, with 60% in favour of the UK governement enacting legislation that limits out-of-hours contact. Major political parties have also begun to mention a potential 'right to switch off' in their manifestos - suggesting that it may soon make it's way into legislation.

In the meantime, employers should respect existing employee rights, such as ensuring that all rest breaks are adhered to and employees are not forced to work overtime outside their contracted hours. Employees may add signatures to their emails dictating their actual working hours, so recipients know when to expect a response. Adopting a culture of respect amongst teams and setting clear boundaries around work-life-balance can go a long way to improving employee wellbeing, whilst also respecting the need for some flexibility.

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