Right to disconnect: rules about contacting staff out of hours

Switching off from work can have numerous benefits for both employers and employees. We look at the rules that apply and how you can best disconnect.

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It’s 8pm and your boss is ringing you on your mobile. Your normal hours are the classic 9 to 5 and you haven't agreed on anything about working after hours. You pick up the phone in case it’s an emergency – it isn’t.

Awkward situations like these, where your personal time is interrupted by a professional call, are a strong reminder of the importance of allowing employees to disconnect from work outside of normal working hours. As more employees work from home or use their personal mobiles to handle work tasks, many are finding it difficult to switch off.

What are the rules of contacting staff after hours in the UK?

The UK recognises the importance of employees switching off after hours. While there’s no explicit ‘right to disconnect’ law, employees generally have the right to enjoy their free time without work interruptions, as stipulated in Working Time Regulations 1998. Contacting them outside their contracted hours, unless under specific circumstances, can be considered an invasion of privacy.

Exceptions do exist:

  • Emergencies: if a genuine emergency arises, contacting employees outside of their regular hours is acceptable. For instance, an emergency would be a ransomware attack on all your sites, which risks losing the company thousands, as well as major reputational damage.
  • On-call agreements: if an employee agrees to be available outside specific hours, like for on-call shifts, contacting them during those agreed-upon periods is permitted.
  • Company mobiles: if an employee uses a company-issued phone, there might be an implicit expectation of availability, but only for work-related emergencies or if on-call duties apply. This doesn’t extend to personal time or holidays.

You should remember that clear contracts are key – ensure all parties involved are on the same page about expectations regarding after-hours availability and compensation for on-call duties. Adhere to the Working Time Regulations, including the 48-hour maximum weekly working time limit and rest break requirements. Above all, foster a culture of open communication. Employees should feel comfortable discussing concerns about after-hours contact.

If you believe your employer is violating your right to disconnect or exceeding working time limits, you can report them to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This body is responsible for enforcing these regulations.

Lessons from other nations

While the UK hasn’t enshrined the right to disconnect into law, the tide is turning worldwide. These are some examples:

🍀 Ireland: in 2023, Ireland introduced a Code of Practice that offers practical guidance for organisations on respecting an employee’s right to disconnect. The code emphasises that employees shouldn’t be expected to regularly check emails or answer calls after work. It also stipulates that employers cannot punish or penalise employees for ignoring work communications outside their contracted hours.

🦘 Australia: the country is poised to enact legislation granting employees the right to disconnect. The law establishes that workers have the right to ignore work-related messages and calls without fear of repercussions. As said by Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, “Someone who is not being paid 24 hours a day shouldn’t be penalised if they’re not online and available 24 hours a day.”

🌍 Europe: France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium have implemented laws granting employees the right to disconnect after work. This trend, echoed by the European Parliament’s call for an EU-wide law, highlights the growing recognition of the need for work-life balance.

The case for disconnecting

While some employers believe the boundary drawn by the right to disconnect can mean less work produced and lower productivity, there’s actually a positive justification to follow this guidance for both the employer and the employee. Here’s why:

From an employee perspective

  • The mental health lifeline = constant work availability fuels stress, anxiety, and difficulty switching off, which ultimately leads to burnout. Disconnecting allows employees to unwind, recharge, and return to work feeling better prepared.
  • Stress = stalled performance: chronic stress isn’t just bad for mental health – it’s synonymous with poor business. Overworked, stressed employees are less productive, less creative, and more prone to errors and conflict.
  • The importance of family time= constant work intrusions disrupt personal time and family life, affecting relationships and overall happiness. Disconnecting allows employees to be fully present for the people and activities that matter most.
  • Rest fuels peak performance= adequate sleep, relaxation, and time away from work demands allow us to physically and mentally recharge, returning to work energised and ready to perform.

From a business perspective

  • Disconnecting is an investment = if you allow employees to distance themselves from work to recharge, they can return to work well-rested and energised, leading to higher quality work and increased productivity.
  • Presenteeism as a hidden cost = working while unwell or exhausted can be detrimental for business. If you focus on employee wellbeing by promoting a culture of right to disconnect, it’ll benefit the individual’s health and your company’s bottom line.
  • Better retention rates = encouraging disconnect demonstrates your commitment to your employees’ wellbeing, fostering a positive company culture that attracts and retains top talent. Reduced stress and better work-life balance lead to happier, engaged employees who contribute effectively and are likely to stay with the company longer.

Strategies for disconnecting effectively

Not being on your work apps outside of regular hours is not enough to fully disconnect. Here are some strategies you can apply to give you and your employees sufficient time to rest:

For employees

  • Define your boundaries: establish clear boundaries between your work and personal time. Decide on specific working hours and communicate them effectively to colleagues and managers. Let them know when you’re unavailable and stick to it.
  • Embrace work-life balance apps: use apps that silence notifications outside of working hours and even block access to work-related websites and emails during your personal time. Tools like Freedom, Focus Keeper, and Offtime are great to help you truly switch off.
  • Mute notifications: during your non-working hours, disable notifications for work emails, chat platforms, and any other work-related apps. Trust that urgent matters will reach you through designated channels, or wait until you’re back online.
  • Practise digital detoxing: schedule regular digital detox breaks throughout the day, stepping away from your screens, silencing your phone, and engaging in activities that have nothing to do with work.

For employers

  • Build policies: create clear and supportive policies that encourage disconnection. Set designated working hours, outline expectations for after-hours communication, and empower employees to use tools like ‘do not disturb’ modes and auto replies.
  • Lead by example: respect an employee’s time off by avoiding late-night emails or weekend Slack messages. Trust your team to manage their work effectively within your designated hours.
  • Open communication: create safe spaces for employees to discuss workload concerns and express their need for disconnection. Listening to your team and addressing their needs is essential for building trust and a positive work environment.
  • Understanding scheduled communication: use tools that allow you to schedule the delivery time of emails and messages, even if they’re being composed outside of working hours. This way, you can avoid sending late-night pings and let your team know important information without disrupting their personal time.

Conclusion: balancing business needs with employee wellbeing

The ‘always-on’ culture might be synonymous with more work and efficiency at first glance, but it burns out employees and hurts your bottom line. Disconnecting isn’t just a feel-good perk – it’s a strategic investment.

If you’re an employee, make sure to set boundaries, use scheduling tools, and make time for digital detoxing. If you’re an employer, implement supportive policies, put work-life balance on a pedestal, and encourage open communication.

While finding the right balance between your business needs and employee wellbeing is tricky, adapt as you go Above all, listen to your employees’ needs and remember that happy and healthy employees are the key to success.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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