Just over 70 years ago, the world’s first computer was built in Manchester. Today, computer technology is everywhere, enabling employees to ‘always be on call’ through remote devices.
So can you just switch everything off? Well, the ‘right to disconnect’ from the office was recently tested in two cases which decided that employees have a right to switch off their mobile devices once they have left work.
Last July, France’s Supreme Court ordered the French arm of Rentokil Initial to pay a former employee €60,000 because it had failed to respect his ‘right to disconnect’ outside office hours.
French law confers the right to disconnect to every employee who uses digital or telecommunication tools for their work. Every organisation in France with more than 50 workers has to regulate the use of electronic communication devices to safeguard employee access to a stable work / home life balance.
The French ruling was followed by the Labour Court in Ireland which awarded €7,500 to a female employee who was required to reply to emails outside normal office hours.
The Irish Court ruled that this exceeded her statutory maximum working hours. By failing to monitor her pattern of work and to keep proper records of her long working hours, the employer had therefore ‘permitted’ her to work excessively. Such conduct was deemed to be in breach of Irish law and the EU Working Time Directive.
So what about the UK? Some employers expect employees to be available at all hours. But English law seems set to follow France and Ireland.
Implementing legislation to address the problem will not be easy. Legislators will have to ensure that the ‘right to disconnect’ does not oblige employees to work at given times out-of-hours, or be misused as a device for employers to pile excessive pressure onto employees to complete work by a specified finish time.
Long working hours can damage health. According to Bupa research, over 50% of workers are kept awake at night by occupational stress while the Australian government has found a link between increased working hours and poor mental health: levels of anxiety or depression increase directly in line with the number of hours worked.
Whenever our lawmakers pass legislation to safeguard employees from the ever-increasing demands of work, it should be remembered that every employer already has the responsibility to act immediately to protect the health and wellbeing of their workers.
Chris Pavlou is a specialist employment lawyer at Excello Law. Chris undertakes a wide range of contentious and non-contentious work in all aspects of employment law and is highly experienced in advising a wide range of clients. For more information, visit www.excellolaw.co.uk or call 0845 257 9449.