Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing
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How to change the 'always on' workplace culture: Lessons from overseas

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The UK is most definitely behind the curve when it comes to ensuring that employees feel they can properly disconnect from work when they clock off. So how can HR improve things and what can our European neighbours teach us?

25th Nov 2021
Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing
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Flexible working has become the new normal in many organisations and brings many wellbeing and convenience benefits for employees. Yet such a rapid change in working practices inevitably presents some new challenges too, and one such issues is the blurring of boundaries between employee work and leisure time.

There is now a growing school of thought that employees should be given the right to switch-off from all work devices during their non-working hours

This problem may now be leading to growing levels of employee stress and even burnout. It follows that many more employers and their Human Resources (HR) departments are now actively considering how to minimise this wellbeing risk.  

The right to disconnect

There is now a growing school of thought that employees should be given the right to switch-off from all work devices during their non-working hours. This approach has become known as “the right to disconnect”, and is defined by Wikipedia as: “The ability of people to disconnect from work and primarily not to engage in work-related electronic communications such as e-mails or messages during non-work hours."

So, can this approach be adapted to the UK workplace, and are there any useful examples of the approach taken by other nations in this area? 

What has happened elsewhere?

Certainly, some other European nations are ahead of the United Kingdom in considering this action. The European Union (EU) is actively looking at the right to disconnect, and individual EU nations have already introduced legislation in this area including France (2016), Italy (2017) and Spain (2018). Yet all of these were written in a pre-pandemic world, and therefore may have been rather overtaken by the seismic events of the last two years.

Whereas the Republic of Ireland introduced a new Code of Practice in April this year, with the impact of the pandemic and far greater levels of home-working specifically in mind and centres on three key employee rights:

  • The right not to have to routinely perform work outside of normal working hours

  • The right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours

  • The duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect

In practice this may be more flexible than it at first appears, with the new requirements being part of a Code of Practice which requires the engagement of both employer and employees to actively determine the parameters of the policy in place.

To be a real success Human Resources professionals will need to ensure the new policy is fully embedded across their organisation  

The United Kingdom’s position

Will the UK follow a similar path to its European neighbours? At present the right to disconnect seems to have little legislative momentum, and the government’s current focus on remote working centres on a proposed new right to request flexible working from the first day of any new employment. This does however keep flexible working high on the political and media agenda and calls for a right to disconnect may well grow stronger as the next general election approaches.

Yet many employers will want to take some corrective action far sooner. So what factors might they consider in the formulation of their own, company-specific, policy?

Flexibility is key

As mentioned earlier, the key to the Republic of Ireland’s approach is about taking a less prescriptive view of the requirements which is important as the potential benefits of flexible working are greatly reduced if too many limitations are imposed. Put simply, a right to disconnect policy that works for one employee might also prevent another working at their optimum rate.

Employers should also recognise that the interconnected nature of business means that rigid restrictions unilaterally imposed on their own organisation and workforce could actually become a barrier to doing business with external clients and suppliers. This problem could become further magnified if the employer contracts business with organisations in different global time-zones.

Employers need to establish a policy that protects employee wellbeing, enables employees to work freely and at their rate of maximum productivity, and does not act as a barrier to usual business activity. In principle that sounds difficult, but in practice it may not need to be.

A loose framework

The starting point may be to establish a loose framework to guide employees. Some ideas for consideration might include:

  • Suggest time restrictions for online working hours rather than impose them

  • Encourage employees to understand that others may be working at different times, and therefore responses might not be instantaneous 

  • Encourage employees to “switch off” once working hours are completed– and make it clear that the employer fully endorses and supports such an approach

What about line-managers?

The above would be a good first-step towards avoiding the 'always on' remote working culture and its associated wellbeing challenges. Yet to be a real success Human Resources professionals will need to ensure the new policy is fully embedded across their organisation. 

Employee benefits such as Employee Assistance Plans, remote GP appointments, and physical and mental health support apps are widely available and accessible at most times of the day or night 

HR experts should therefore seek to equip line managers with an understanding of this new approach, and indeed all the information and tools needed to achieve that aim. In particular line managers should be taught to look out for – and discourage – excessive 'online' working practices, and also how to effectively signpost employees to wellbeing support tools as and when they may be needed.  

Support tools

Employee benefits such as Employee Assistance Plans (EAP), remote GP appointments, and physical and mental health support apps are now widely available and designed to be accessible at most times of the day or night. Such offerings will hopefully provide both employer and employee with valuable tools in the battle to avoid the worst excesses of remote overwork and burnout.

The reality is that remote working is here to stay for many employers and their employees, and it’s in the interests of both groupings to ensure that this is not excessive in nature, and also supported with tools that are available wherever and whenever the employee may need them.

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