The right to disconnect? It’s time to prevent digital burnout

Article provided by Kathryn Barnes, Employment Counsel EMEA at Globalization Partners

Recent research reveals that the largest challenge employers are facing with remote working is getting employees to ‘unplug’ after work.

With work from anywhere set to become the future work model for many companies, the mental health needs of remote workers need to remain high on the agenda.

The issue of digital burnout is such that the UK government is currently being urged to introduce “right to disconnect” policies that will help staff to keep their home and work lives separate. According to a recent poll of UK workers, 32 per cent found it difficult to switch off from work with a further 30 per cent saying they now work longer hours compared to pre-pandemic times.

With hybrid and remote work becoming the workplace norm, employers will need to get to grips fast with the issues facing home workers, who increasingly feel under pressure to be constantly available online – and to achieve more each day.

Adjusting to the new normal

Last year’s shift to remote working in response to the coronavirus pandemic ushered in a new workplace reality for millions of people around the globe. Work from home restrictions and isolation from colleagues quickly took their toll on the mental health of workers, who reported feeling lonely and stressed by external events beyond their control.

As the months rolled by, it became clear that being digitally connected and always available was proving both a boon and a curse. Many employees struggled to get the work-life balance right; with little option but to stay indoors, many doubled down when it came to making themselves available in the evenings and at weekends. As a result, new ‘unspoken’ rules of operation quickly became normalised as expectations rose that any email sent, or call made outside of normal working hours, would be responded to instantly.

One thing is for sure, today’s digital communication and collaboration tools make it difficult to switch off from work related events that are constantly pinged directly to our devices, all of the time. But as the world moves towards a post-pandemic reality of hybrid and remote working, employers will need to get to grips with new concepts – like agreeing on rules on when people can be contacted for work purposes.

Changing the narrative around employee health and wellbeing

Organisations have long been aware of the issue of employee stress and burnout and the long term damaging impact this has on workforce productivity and employee engagement.

While lockdowns may be lifting, the last 18 months have seen new behavioural norms appear and failure to monitor the wellbeing of personnel who are no longer visible or ‘present’ in office locations means warning signs can often be overlooked or simply swept under the carpet. But out of sight, out of mind approaches won’t be sustainable for the long term because the health and the wellbeing of the workforce urgently needs to be prioritised in the light of today’s new workplace realities.

While many employers operate a very informal approach to recognising the issue of mental health, others don’t address the topic at all. Yet UK legislation stipulates that employers have a duty of care for employees’ health and wellbeing at work and in Europe, the Working Time Directive means that businesses can be fined if their employees consistently work in excess of their working hours.

One thing is for sure. Being available for work at every hour of the day doesn’t necessarily equate to output. Statistics from the OECD show that despite the fact that British workers routinely work longer hours than they need to, they are 11 per cent less productive than French workers and 14 per cent less productive than German workers.

Creating safe and healthy workspaces

As business leaders prepare to initiate new flexible working arrangements that will see more of us working remotely more of the time, they will also need to consider introducing new policies that will make a genuine difference to the health and happiness of workers. These include:

  • Initiating regular in-person and virtual video ‘check-ins’ that measure levels of risk to staff with regard to mental health and work-related issues.
  • Ensuring that remote workers feel the same level of connectedness to co-workers and managers – all of which will have a positive impact on productivity and mental health.
  • Giving employees options like mental health days – personal time off, no meeting days, or discussion sessions on mindfulness or managing burnout.
  • Proactive interventions for employees who routinely work outside normal working hours or fail to take all their holidays – encouraging employees to decompress or take some well-deserved time off.
  • Create opportunities for open dialogues that enable workers to be forthright about their concerns or challenges, without fear of retribution.

The right to disconnect?

As of April this year, Irish workers have the right not to routinely work outside normal working hours; to not be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters out of hours, and a duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect.

But in today’s hyper-connected global world of work, the right to disconnect may prove difficult to manage – especially if international teams are working across different time zones. Following months spent working from home, many employees have become accustomed to choosing the pattern of hours that best represent ‘normal’ for them – fitting work in around their day-to-day caring responsibilities, for example, can mean they elect to work late into the night or start well before the normal working day.

In the coming months, employers will need to determine what the ‘new normal’ looks like for their business, adopting a more person-centric approach to managing the health and wellbeing of their workforces. In doing so, they will have to rethink how they manage people and support them to reset the boundaries between home and work.

About the author

Kathryn has worked in the legal field for over 18 years. Since being called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2010 after successful completion of her legal studies, Kathryn started to practice in Employment Law. During practice, Kathryn has represented Employers and Employees in Employment Law matters in many different settings and understands the challenge supporting a workforce can bring for any business.

Kathryn has worked within International Employment Law and HR for over 10 years, finding the excitement and diversity of International Employment Law not only a thrill but a welcome challenge. Based in the UK, Kathryn is the European Counsel for Globalization Partners. Kathryn deals with all legal matters pertaining to European Employment Law in the support she provides to the company’s ever – expanding HR Specialists and Operations teams. Kathryn’s diverse and substantial background in European Employment Law and business, allows her to close out complex issues in a short space of time.

Kathryn Barnes, Employment Counsel - Europe, Globalization Partners

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