Annabel Denham

Giving workers a ‘right to switch off’ could backfire

(Getty images)

Millions of workers are ‘never quite switching off’ and are answering emails out of hours, warns Autonomy, a think tank. It suggests that the 1996 Employment Rights Act should be amended to give employees a legal ‘right to disconnect’.

Unfortunately for Autonomy, Labour’s new deal for workers, outlined last month, somewhat stole its thunder. Spearheaded by deputy leader Angela Rayner, the party’s radical package of labour market reforms includes a default right to flexible working, new worker status for those in the gig economy and, of course, a French-style law barring employers from contacting workers outside strictly regulated hours.

Nonetheless, Autonomy’s suggestion has received fawning coverage. The Guardian headline referring to the piece suggested that Covid has ushered in an overtime ‘epidemic’ – a word deployed so exhaustively in this crisis that it’s virtually devoid of meaning. The word actually means ‘a sudden outbreak of infectious disease that spreads rapidly through the population, affecting a large proportion of people’. Your boss contacting you at 5.01pm hardly fits that description.

Unlike countries such as France, however, the UK has a flexible labour market with a marvellously wide range of types of employment

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, led with the claim that women have been ‘working harder than men’. Studies have shown they’ve taken on the bulk of home-schooling and housework over the past 18 months, but we should be wary of suggesting that women have had a tougher time of Covid-19. The normalisation of home working will offset rather than compound many of the negative effects of the pandemic on women. And data from the Office for National Statistics has found men increased their childcare responsibilities during lockdown.

Across the globe, countries have been attempting to identify and enact effective right to disconnect laws for years. France, Italy and Spain now have legislation, and Ireland has recently introduced a ‘Code of Practice’ giving employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal working hours.

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