Enforcing Work-Life Balance: Due Diligence or Corporate Babysitting?

Right To Disconnect

Graham Thornton

A report published recently in the International Journal of Management Reviews examining the use of work-related technology during non-working hours has found that many employees feel pressured into logging in after hours. The research, led by the University of Surrey in collaboration with Birkbeck, University of London, and the University of Exeter, concluded that more needs to be done to ‘ensure 24-hour working is not the new norm’.


A right to disconnect

But, depending on our background and industry, some of us might feel there’s a fine line between due diligence and corporate babysitting. In France, for example, it’s now common for companies to have a cut-off time for email correspondence. After 7pm, say, emails may be blocked with their senders receiving an automatic response that they’ll be delivered the following morning. And, in January, a law dubbed ‘the right to disconnect’ was introduced whereby companies with more than 50 employees have to give their workers a ‘right to disconnect from the use of digital tools’ to ensure ‘observance of rest time and leave as well as of personal and family life’.

It’s difficult, however, to imagine such laws being implemented in the US where in some industries even taking your full holiday quota may be frowned upon. So what about closer to home? Heavily influenced by EU labour law directives, the rights of UK workers are certainly superior to those of the US but, that said, it’s unlikely we’ll see the government try to impose restrictions in out-of-hours work any time soon. The question is, should they?


But is digital burn-out really a problem?

With work-related stress a big issue, leading to an estimated loss of 12.5 million working days per year in the UK, it’s crucial that employers take an interest in the wellbeing of their staff. But – and despite what laws such as ‘the right to disconnect’ might suggest – research shows that most employees aren’t particularly stressed by checking emails outside work. (Or at least not as long as their general level of job satisfaction remains high.) In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence that 24-hour connectivity has had a positive impact. The report dubbed this the ‘empowerment/enslavement paradox’, detailing how while ‘ICT use can empower employees by facilitating work-life balance through increased flexibility and control’, it can also ‘make employees “slaves” by electronically “tethering” them to work 24/7, decreasing flexibility and control’.

The key seems to be a common sense policy of quid pro quo. If you expect employees to be available outside working hours, then ideally you should carry that flexibility through to their core hours. While remote communication doubtless has its place, a useful rule of thumb might be: If it can wait, let it! Otherwise, demanding 24-hour connectivity when it’s not really crucial will see you exchange short-term gains for longer-term issues with stress and reduced productivity.


Employees need to take responsibility, too

Obviously, sometimes there’s a genuine need for employees to work long after business hours are officially over, especially during year-end or auditing periods. However, a better long-term solution might be to consider upskilling junior employees to help out, or to take on interim staff. (In fact, that’s one of the ways in which our Interim Practice  can help.)

Then there are those employees who believe that being permanently on call will get them noticed, in which case you can best combat this kind of digital one-upmanship by stamping down on it, hard! Make clear that anything more than an occasional one-off late night simply suggests they can’t keep up with their workload.


Flexibility is key

Although policies restricting access to emails outside office hours may help ensure a healthy work-life balance, the report’s lead author, Svenja Schlachter from the University of Surrey, argues against a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, she recommends that ‘employers give individuals control over their working patterns and actively involve them in any decisions or policies about technology use’. The best way to do this is by putting the issue on the table so you can spell out your expectations and agree on some boundaries. That way your employees can reap the benefits of technology without becoming enslaved by it.

In short, the ‘right to disconnect’ isn’t so much a right as a matter of good judgement. Employers (who, don’t forget, are also workers themselves) may not need a written policy to remind them and their employees to switch their phones off occasionally, but it may be useful for us all – employers and employees alike – to be mindful of the working culture we’re helping to create and its impact on our wellbeing, health and families.


If your organisation could do with some extra support, and you’d like a confidential, no-strings discussion of what we can offer, then call our Interim Practice on 0203 002 8050. You can also read the full report Voluntary Work-related Technology Use during Non-work Time here.