What the right to disconnect could mean for UK SMEs

10 min read  |   14 May, 2024   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

Animated image shows a man meditating against a lilac backdrop. One half of him is dressed in smart clothes, with a laptop emitting message notifications. The other half of him is dressed in casual clothes, with yoga-pose hands and flowers, showing calm imager. This shows the conflict between work-life balance.
    

Did you know that countries including Ireland, France, Spain, Belgium, Italy and Portugal have already legislated the right for employees to disconnect outside of their working hours? Australia recently passed a bill to legalise the right to disconnect in 2024 – but this isn’t currently law in the UK.

 

The Labour Party propose in their Green Paper that they would bring in a legal right to disconnect in the UK, should they gain a majority at the next general election.

 

In this blog, we look at what this law could mean for HR, along with its pros & cons. Breathe Partner, Claire Watt, Managing Director of Ditton HR (FCIPD), shares her key advice for SMEs on this topic.

 

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What is the right to disconnect?

The right to disconnect allows employees to formally switch off from work outside of their normal working hours. It means employees aren’t expected to be ‘always on’ and contactable, connected to their working tools.

 

This would put legal parameters around work/life balance and ensure employees have a definite right to separate their personal lives from work.

But what might this actually mean for SMEs & HR teams?

 

What the right to disconnect could mean for SMEs

Does the right to disconnect need to be legislated, or can the same effect be achieved by a shift in culture and attitudes for SMEs?

In this section, we look at the pros & cons of legalising the right to disconnect, with HR advice from Claire Watt of Ditton HR.

 

Pros of a legal right to disconnect:

6 in 10 people in an Ipsos survey said they’d support the introduction of a new law giving employees the right to ignore work-related communication outside working hours.

 

And the evidence supports maintaining good boundaries between work & life – we know that productivity is higher when you’ve had a chance to decompress from work, as well as the clear mental health benefits.

A clear right to disconnect could benefit some SMEs under pressure in these difficult economic times, Claire notes.

“Amongst my SME clients, I’ve seen an increase in the number of redundancies and the remaining employees being expected to take on more work to cover the lost roles. This then can have the knock-on effect of employees feeling they need to work out of hours and weekends to keep on top of the work.

This then becomes the expected norm - and might be sustainable in the short-term, but in the long term can lead to burnout, sickness and resignations.”

Claire Watt, Managing Director of Ditton HR

CIPD also advises that managers & senior leaders also should set a good example and set expectations for the working culture, as “policies are not enough by themselves; giving ‘permission’ to reduce expectations and not to check emails outside of normal working hours or when on leave”.

For SMEs where regularly working out of hours is part of the culture, the right to disconnect would likely be welcomed.

 

Cons of a legal right to disconnect:

Claire notes that a legal right to disconnect could be restrictive for some SME clients, and that whilst the cultural intention is good, believes SMEs should have the flexibility to manage without it.

“Although we all know we should have boundaries between work and home, it’s very hard for some people to keep these boundaries in place, and we need a shift in culture and attitudes to help us do this and this may be where legislation can help.

However, I would prefer this shift to arise from a want to change the culture and by understanding the benefits of this change rather than it being enforced by law.”

Claire Watt, Managing Director of Ditton HR

 

The impact on HR policy

Whatever happens legally, CIPD insights share that policies need to be reflective of the technological advancements of the changing working world, and that “working practices are managed to avoid stress & poor wellbeing”.

Claire flags that some managers will still reach out to their employees outside of working hours, even if the right to disconnect does come into force.

She also notes that what employees want in terms of communication from work depends on their individual circumstances.

 

“In terms of policies if this becomes law, SMEs need to engage with employees when drawing up HR policies. Brainstorm what will and won’t work for your business, and tailor it to your team. It might be an idea to run workshops on the policy, covering breaks, core working hours, early/late meetings, and different time zones, if applicable.

HR would also need to support line managers with how to put this into practice & how to manage employee communications. Most managers should know their direct reports well enough to know their lifestyles – e.g. an employee with children might not appreciate a call at dinnertime, but for someone else, catching up at 6pm might be ideal.”

Claire Watt, Managing Director of Ditton HR

How SMEs can set digital boundaries to protect their teams

Regardless of whether the right to disconnect law is passed or not, SMEs should still be putting their people first – which includes respecting working hours and boundaries between life and work.

Claire’s put together some tips for SMEs on setting boundaries around work & ensuring a good company culture:

 

Claire's 6 tips for SMEs to combat an ‘always on’ culture

 

1. Lead by example

The importance of SME leadership setting a good example is paramount, Claire notes.

Accepted standards of behaviour filter from the top of an organisation, so where possible, leaders should practice respecting working hours and trying to model a healthy work/life balance.

 

2. Being aware of employee’s workloads

Claire advises managers need to be aware of how much work their team have on – and who might be at risk of burning out. Speaking to your team about what type of support they need is crucial.

 

3. Ongoing two-way communication about issues and workloads

Managers need to know to avoid putting someone who’s already stressed forward for that additional project (that turns out to be much more work than first anticipated). Keep conversations going around workload, and let employees know how to communicate when they’ve got too much on and their mental health is at risk.

Some SMEs operate a scoring out of 10 system in catch-ups, or a traffic light system (e.g. green is good, amber is ok but a warning sign, and red means they need help with their workload).

 

4. Try not to have meetings over lunch or before/after work

Fundamentally, this goes back to respecting working hours – and breaks. Breaks are needed for a reason, so try and avoid scheduling meetings before usual working times or after normal working hours, as well as when your employees usually take their breaks.

And let’s be honest - after a full day of work, how productive is a 5-6pm meeting anyway?

 

5. Guidelines and workshops on how to unplug & disconnect

As mentioned earlier, it’s now easier than ever to work later when working from home or to check emails on your phone. Post-pandemic, the lines between work and home have become more blurred than ever – so some employees might appreciate guidelines or a workshop around how to set those digital boundaries and switch off.

Sometimes, the very nature of sending out guidelines with clear expectations to your staff may be all that’s needed. Culturally, if employees know what the business expects of them, they might find it easier to maintain those work/life boundaries for themselves.

 

6. Examples of when there could be an exception to the rule (e.g. emergencies)

Of course, there might be situations where employees may need to be contacted outside of their usual working hours, for example in the event of a business-critical event or an emergency. Claire advises that these very urgent issues could have a big impact on the business or employee if they’re not resolved quickly.

If you’re creating guidelines around switching off outside of working hours, it may be worth including a note around these exceptions. As long as it’s clearly stated with examples, most people will understand.

 

The right to disconnect & putting your people first

Breathe’s founding value is that we put our people first.

Whether the right to disconnect comes into law or not, SMEs can put their people first by respecting their team’s working hours. And if you look after your people in this way, they’ll take care of your business (in the words of Richard Branson).

Easily manage employee leave & working patterns with Breathe’s HR software.

Why not take out a free 14-day trial?

Claire Watt (FCIPD) is the Managing Director of Ditton HR (and a HR Partner of Breathe).

Aimée

Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter as of February 2023, Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With a passion for guiding readers to solutions for their HR woes, she enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: From employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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