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Reflecting on World Mental Health Day — the right to disconnect

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found 40% of employees who took part in its UK-wide survey checked emails outwith work at least five times a day.

Thirty percent also said they were unable to switch off, their minds always turning to work.

As technology is fast-becoming such a fixture in most of our lives, we’re becoming used to being contactable 24/7.

But, with World Mental Health Day on 10 October fresh in our minds, it seems fair to ask if that’s healthy? And is it right? And do employees have the right to disconnect?

It’s generally accepted that disconnecting can improve employees’ mental health and even increase productivity when they’re at work.

Plus, on a personal level, a healthier work life balance allows people more time to spend with their families, or on themselves.

In Europe

So what’s the picture like elsewhere?

In Germany a number of companies have taken steps to reduce out-of-hours communication.

Back in 2012, Volkswagen updated its Blackberry servers to block emails from being received 30 minutes after an employee’s shift ended until 30 minutes before their next shift started.

Daimler went even further and installed a programme that automatically deletes emails sent to employees either off sick or on holiday.

In France in 2017, the right to disconnect was enshrined in law.

All businesses with 50 employees or more have to negotiate with employees on their expectations when it comes to out-of-hours communication. This has also recently been adopted in Italy.

There were concerns these laws would be difficult to enforce; however, a recent French Supreme Court case dealt with this issue. The French arm of British company Rentokil Initial was ordered to pay €60,000 to a former employee representing compensation for time he spent on call: leaving his phone on and answering calls. It was found his employer had not respected his right to disconnect.

The Irish Labour Court awarded €7,500 to an employee who, due to replying to emails out of working hours, was held to regularly work more than the 48-hour weekly statutory maximum and did not receive the requisite 11 hours’ rest between the end of one shift and the beginning of another.

These statutory limits are also in place in the UK by virtue of the 1998 EU Working Time Regulations, meaning a similar case would be competent in this country.

The US situation

In America, one company has attempted to tackle this issue in a more controversial way.

Aetna Insurance is offering employees a bonus if they record seven hours of sleep every night. For every 20 days they do so their employer will pay $25, up to a maximum of $300. To achieve the maximum bonus, an employee would need to record 240 nights where they reached this target.

This development has raised some concerns, particularly surrounding data protection and invasion of privacy.

There are also potential implications regarding employers having access to potentially sensitive medical data; however, the programme is voluntary and recording can be done manually using a pen and paper rather than using devices such as a Fitbit.

Stress at work

Although checking sleep patterns does appear somewhat extreme, the issue of switching off and not remaining permanently contactable is certainly one that’s not going to go away, and from a legal standpoint, there are possible issues, including stress at work claims.

More importantly there’s also the wellbeing of the workforce and the fact long hours often appear to be at the cost of productivity.

The simple message for businesses may be to encourage staff to have focussed times when they’re working, and equally focussed times when they’re not.

Alanah Mills

Alanah Mills is a solicitor at Ledingham Chalmers. She’s based in our Aberdeen office.

Posted, 17 October 2019 by Alanah Mills
Categories: Employment | Insights