Ministers are being urged to tackle the “dark side” of remote working by giving employees a legal “right to disconnect” to improve their mental health.
After a year of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the union Prospect, which represents specialists such as scientists, engineers and tech workers, wants companies to be legally required to negotiate with staff and agree rules on when people cannot be contacted for work purposes.
Polling commissioned from Opinium found that two-thirds of those currently working remotely supported the policy and wanted the UK to follow the lead of countries such as Ireland in helping workers who are struggling with keeping their personal and professional lives separate.
Angus Wheeler-Rowe, who works in the telecoms industry, said that while working from home had “helped to keep people safe”, it had also “made it harder to separate work, home and family commitments”. “When your personal space becomes your office, and with no commute to bookend the day, pressure grows for longer days and response to requests at unreasonable hours,” he said.
“Setting rules about the boundaries for remote or hybrid working would make a big difference in helping people switch off and recharge, especially if we are going to be spending much more time working from home in the future. Reinforcing the distinction between work and home will increase motivation and at-work productivity, which has to be better for bosses and workers.”
Responses to the survey of 2,428 people – including 617 who are normally office-based – were anonymised, but some voiced similar concerns. “I feel like I am living from work rather than working from home,” one said. Another commented: “I enjoy working from home but because I have no change of environment it can be hard to forget about work tasks.”
The polling found broad cross-party support, with 65% of Labour and 53% of Conservative voters supporting a right to disconnect. Support was higher among remote workers: 66% were in favour, compared with 59% of all workers.
About 35% of remote workers also said their work-related mental health had worsened during the pandemic, while 30% said they were working more unpaid hours than before, with 18% reporting at least four additional unpaid hours a week.
This month, Ireland introduced a right to disconnect, allowing employees to not have to work routinely outside their normal hours. The Irish deputy prime minister and trade minister, Leo Varadkar, said that while much of the pandemic’s impact had been negative, it also offered “an opportunity to make permanent changes for the better” so that the new law would help employees “strike a better work-life balance”.
In Canada, the federal government is investigating a similar policy. The minister for labour, Filomena Tassi, said female workers could be particularly helped, given women spent about 33% more time than men on unpaid work such as household chores and caregiving responsibilities, meaning they were less likely to be available to their employer outside working hours.
Prospect has written to the UK business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to urge him to pursue a similar policy and make sure it is included in the employment bill promised in the government’s last Queen’s speech, one of several pieces of legislation delayed due to the pandemic.
Andrew Pakes, the union’s research director, said that for millions of people, “working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office”, making it harder to “fully switch off” and affecting their mental health.
He added: “Including a right to disconnect in the employment bill would be a big step in redrawing the blurred boundary between home and work and would show that the government is serious about tackling the dark side of remote working.”
Darren Jones, who chairs the Commons business select committee, told the Guardian that ministers should “make sure that our employment laws keep up” as employers “start adjusting to this new normal of home or hybrid working” and that the employment bill “provides just the opportunity”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The employment bill, when introduced, will deliver the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation, including measures that will help people to balance work with their personal lives.”