Constant connectivity: Is our law fit for purpose?

In this world constant connectivity is part of life. It’s of course all too easy to have a quick peak at work emails. Whether it’s during the evenings, at weekends or on holiday, we’re only a simple click away from working. And even if you don’t respond to emails, just looking at them means you’re not switching off.

With all this connectivity there is a real risk that family life could be affected. There is also a possibility of sleepless nights and stress illness.

So what is our current law and does it need updating?

We don’t really have any laws to protect employees from constantly checking work emails. We do of course have laws against excessive working, but the law is limited in scope. Under the Working Time Regulations workers mustn’t work more than 48 hours each week, averaged over 17 weeks. Workers can opt out provided that they provide a minimum of 7 days notice. They may have to give more notice up to a maximum of 3 months if there is an agreement with the employer. There are also some general exceptions to the 48 hour week including for those workers whose working time is not measured and are in control of their work.

Responding to emails out of working hours probably wouldn’t be covered though. Working time is defined as working at your employer’s disposal and carrying out your duties; periods when the employee is receiving relevant training; and other periods specified in an agreement. Time working at home as part of a flexible working arrangement instead of being in the office would be covered.  However, responding to emails in the evenings or on holiday wouldn’t be included because you wouldn’t be at your employer’s disposal at that time.

About four years ago France passed laws giving employees the right to disconnect. This right to disconnect must be negotiated between the employer and trade-union representatives and there is no prescribed form for any agreement and the measures to be adopted.

Portugal has now passed laws banning bosses from text messaging and emailing staff out of working hours.

So should the UK adopt similar rights?

It does make sense prohibiting employers from sending messages and emails to their staff outside their normal working hours. Employees must often feel pressured into responding to their employers and, arguably, should not be placed in this position.

However, there does need to be some flexibility too. Some employees may, for example, prefer to answer queries from customers or clients in their own time so that the return to work is more manageable. Employees should be given this flexibility.

With autonomy though comes responsibility and employees do need to take care of their well-being.