Giving people the right to disconnect

Technology has undoubtedly shaped the way that the workplace of today operates on a global basis, giving employees the flexibility to get down to business wherever they are in the world and at whatever time.

This freedom helps people to improve their work-life balance, particularly if combined with flexible working. It also helps to reduce their commuting time and fuel costs, enabling them to work at times when they are at their most productive.

For employers, the benefits of supporting this approach may include enhanced employee engagement and commitment, leading to reduced absence levels and staff turnover, all of which can help to boost revenues and profitability.

But this same technology that offers benefits in so many ways also has a potentially dark side too.

One of its disadvantages is that, when using it, the line between home and work life can become blurred, or even merge for some. If there is no obvious cut-off point, over-working can be the consequence, whether as a result of feeling pressured or responsible - or even addicted. But such a situation can have a negative impact on employees’ happiness, which in turn may affect their productivity and the profitability of the company.

Stress and anxiety

Without enough time to relax and unwind from their daily duties, people can experience exhaustion, demotivation as well as stress, anxiety and even depression, which are estimated to bring about the loss of 2.5 million working days in the UK alone. So it comes as no surprise that the World Health Organization (WHO) has branded workplace stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century” - and being unable to switch off is only exacerbating the situation.

In a bid to tackle the problem, France introduced a law at the start of 2017, which means that all employers with more than 50 staff members have to guarantee their “right to disconnect”. By preventing employees from checking work emails and phone calls out of hours, the aim was to try and combat the ‘always-on’ culture in order to promote a healthier work-life balance.

Earlier this year, a New York City council member also put forward a similar proposal  to bar employers from requiring staff to respond to non-emergency emails, texts and other digital communications outside of normal working hours. Companies violating the law would face fines of at least US$250 per incident.

But what can employers do on a more voluntary basis to help protect their employees’ health and wellbeing? Here are some ideas that may help:

  • If your staff can access work emails from their personal phones, it is important to ensure that push notifications are not enabled so they are not distracted with work-related matters during their downtime. Taking this approach will also encourage employees to only access emails when they are officially in ‘work mode’;
  • Use different forms of communication as appropriate. For example, if the building were on fire, you would be unlikely to email someone to warn them. By the same token, if you are contacting someone outside of work hours by email, it is unlikely to be so important that a response could not wait until the next day;
  • Understand your team’s different personalities and communicate in a suitable fashion. While Generation Xers and Baby Boomers, who are most likely to be in managerial positions, tend to be the worst offenders when sending out-of-hours emails, the majority of recipients, that is Millennials are digital natives and so are likely to feel under pressure to reply, even if an urgent response is not warranted. This means it is important that everyone understands how they may inadvertently contribute to creating a negative workplace culture and take action not to do so;
  • Respect your time - and that of others. If you refrain from sending someone an email at night, they will not feel obliged, or tempted, to respond. Save it for the morning or when they are working. If this habit is practiced by leaders and managers, employees will follow suit.

While there will always be instances in which working out of hours is necessary, it is important that everyone understands it should be the exception rather than the rule. Technology is a fantastic thing that has opened up many possibilities, but it is vital to contain it and be mindful of the impact that over-use can have on our physical and mental health and wellbeing.

 Kevin Rogers 

Kevin Rogers is chief executive of not-for-profit health cover provider, Paycare. A qualified accountant and associate member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, he has worked for more than 25 years in senior management roles at organisations in the manufacturing, automotive and construction sectors.