Pam Loch

One consequence of Covid-19 is that employers had to get a better understanding of their employees’ home life as employees were forced to work from home. Recent research by Aviva however has found that 52% of UK employees felt the boundaries between their work and home life have become increasingly blurred. It’s more than likely working from home, the increasing use of personal devices and social media for work purposes, has contributed to this. Some employees feel unable to switch off and under pressure to be constantly available to respond to messages from managers or work-related emails. With hybrid and remote working here to stay for some of us, do we now need to re-address the blurring of the lines between home and work life? 

Covid is not entirely to blame for the blurring of lines. The Health and Safety Executive reported that 828,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2019/2020. Employees can feel an immense amount of pressure to respond to emails or messages whenever they are sent and in some cases, can feel bullied or harassed for not being available especially where work messages are sent by WhatsApp or by text. Some employers try to address this by providing mobile devices for work only to try to separate work and home life. However, with the increasing use of messaging via social media platforms such as WhatsApp, employees cannot escape messages sent to personal accounts on their own devices. 

As a result of the controversy around the impact of out-of-hour messaging there is an ongoing campaign by the TUC to introduce a ‘right to disconnect’ so that employees have a legal right not to be expected to be ‘on call’ to respond 24 hours a day.

Campaigners want to ensure that all employees feel free not to engage in any work-related emails and messages, outside of working hours. Instead of managers simply not expecting a response, this type of legislation is designed to actively discourage employees from looking at or responding outside of working hours. Ireland have recently introduced the right to disconnect, and its code not only removes the need for an immediate response but also protects employees from any detriment if they are uncontactable outside of working hours. 

Many employees with caring responsibilities however, like the flexibility of being able to catch up on emails outside their working hours. Therefore, even if the right to disconnect was introduced, employers will still need to consider how to protect staff who continue to access and respond to emails or messages out of working hours.

Employers have a statutory duty to care for their staff under the Health and Safety Act at Work Act 1974 and in essence, this requires employers to ensure there is a safe place to work, including at home. While it is evident that regular contact during working hours can assist with avoiding loneliness for remote or lone workers, getting the balance right is crucial to avoid a culture of ‘digital presenteeism’ and minimise stress and anxiety.
Some companies are already taking steps to allow employees to in effect, disconnect. 

For example, some employers have blocked email access in the evenings, others allow employees to state working hours on email footers and make known that is when they are available to answer emails. Adding footers and pop-up messages to remind employees there is no need to respond to emails outside of hours is another approach being taken. 

There are other practical steps an employer can take to avoid employees feeling bullied and harassed from messaging. Having Mental Health First Aiders who are trained to spot the symptoms of mental health issues and offer initial help and support for staff is a proactive step to support the mental wellbeing of employees. Employers could also consider recording the hours employees are working outside working hours, to ensure they are complying with the Working Time Regulations and to monitor time spent working outside of working hours to ensure staff are not working excessive hours. It’s also important to encourage all employees to take their annual leave and encourage them to use this time to have a break from work emails and messages. 

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