Why the ‘Right to Disconnect’ might not be right for the UK

woman switching off

The Labour Party has put the ‘Right to Disconnect’ front and centre by mentioning it in its proposals should it win the next election, which will take place no later than 28 January 2025.

This would see legislation that would prevent employers from contacting employees out of hours by phone or email, following laws that have already been introduced in countries like France, Spain and Portugal.

But is it right for the UK?

Ryan Hopkins, Future of Wellbeing Leader at Deloitte, talked about the Right to Disconnect at our sister event The Watercooler, in April. He believes legislation would go some way to address the productivity and presenteeism problem in the UK:

“Busyness is a badge of honour and a particularly British thing. We glorify workaholism. But the average working week has gone up and productivity hasn’t, which means productivity and input aren’t necessarily correlated.”

We need to change the way we perceive productivity

In our desperation to be present, but not necessarily productive, we are reducing our time spent on those things that really make a difference to business: time for deep work and original thought, as well as valuable time for collaboration with colleagues. (For an example of a company trying to make space for these things, see HSBC’s award winning work around mindfulness here).

We need, says Hopkins, to change the way we perceive and measure productivity and introducing this kind of legislation could kickstart a cultural shift that would accelerate that:

“We are so focused on productivity in the sense of grinding out widget after widget. We cut inefficiencies wherever we can. But we are cutting the important intangibles like the conversations, the connections, the creativity, the coaching, the community… It’s these intangibles, though, that will help us answer the questions of tomorrow.”

Ryan Hopkins, Future of Wellbeing Leader at Deloitte

While legislation might be quite a blunt tool to instigate cultural change, Hopkins believes that we need to “take time back where we can for what makes us our best selves daily”. “If it creates a low bar for success, where people can’t constantly be bothered outside of work and can have more headspace – especially given anxiety, depression and stress at work are all hitting record highs – then I can’t see it being a bad thing,” he says.

Leaders need to be better role models of disconnecting from work

Leadership role modelling also helps change culture. Particularly during the pandemic, and continuing onwards, many executive teams put a line in their email footers saying something like “I might work unsociable hours but that doesn’t mean you have to, or that you have to respond in these hours”.

These types of emails are becoming more and more common, but they can also be problematic and, while meaning to discourage overwork, actually make it inadvertently worse.

“There’s research which shows that people vastly underestimate the compulsion to reply,” says Anna Kotwinski, co-founder of digital wellbeing company Shine Offline. “If your boss sends you an email and cc-es five other people and three of them have replied, you’re going to feel you have to reply too. So, unintentionally, the leader is still turning the cogs of a culture of overwork.”

What’s the answer, then?

Kotwinski would say that leaders could actually be pulling their team members up on working at night, for example, and asking them: is there a reason you’re working at night?

“There’s nothing wrong with creating a stigma around the amount of digital noise and communication there is in a lot of businesses, because it’s currently increasing. It’s not a bad thing to have people stopping to think: actually, is sending this now antisocial?”

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That said, the answer to the question ‘is there a reason you’re working at night?’ could be because, during ‘standard’ working hours, you chose to take your parent to a doctor’s appointment, or looked after your sick child or just weren’t working well so decided to go for a run to boost your productivity.

Right to Disconnect could create shame…

In these cases, Right to Disconnect legislation might make you feel less able to work in this flexible, wellbeing-driven way and could even create a culture where working out of hours is shamed.

Petra Velzeboer, Mental Health Consultant, CEO and Psychotherapist, calls this “wellbeing righteousness” and it’s on the rise and she doesn’t like it.

She defines it as (on a LinkedIn post):

“You know, the people who raise a digital eye-brow if they perceive you to be working outside of normal working hours. Who double question your credibility if doing this when working in wellbeing. The people who act as if they know your whole life story because they saw you on LinkedIn on the weekend. Is this the road to wellbeing? Looking down on people, making assumptions, making judgements?”

Is judging people the way to wellbeing?

As she goes on to explain, she often works very early mornings, or at the weekends, and during the working week she often goes to the gym, or spends time with her daughter, for example. The problem here is the tendency humans have – because of the way we’re wired to make sense of the world – to make assumptions without knowing the full story. That’s why, especially for leaders, continual challenging of assumptions and being curious, rather than judgmental, about others’ behaviour is essential for healthy workplaces.

And, as already mentioned, attempting to address this in an email footer is not sufficient because people will be more influenced by what you do (send emails out of hours) rather what you say (tell them that they don’t have to). Especially if you are in a leadership role.

Assumptions in a hybrid world about what ‘flexible’ means

“Especially in this hybrid world, there are a lot of assumptions about what flexible working means and we are seeing burnout rise because people are working towards those assumptions,” says Velzeboer. “Actually, what needs to happen is every company sits down and defines what flexibility means, and looks like, to them, in their industry. Trust, autonomy and transparent conversations are key elements in the workplace today.”

Shine Offline’s research confirms that digital presenteeism is at an all time high with 62% of their participants telling them that their work life balance is worse post pandemic. Kotwinski agrees that, because of the complexity behind flexibility, and the difference between company cultures and industries, it’s very difficult to legislate effectively for a Right to Disconnect, in a way that doesn’t disadvantage some workers.

A better way….

As a better alternative she suggests government encourage the “low bar” to be a team or company charter. This way each company would have to create, by law, some kind of guidelines around acceptable contact considering matters such as core hours, emergency contact, holidays, global teams, etc. “Without this clarity, everyone is just on 24/7,” she says.

However, Kotwinski says we we’ve actually got this issue the wrong way round.

Rather than think about the ‘Right to Disconnect’ she argues we should be prioritising the Right to Connect. She believes proper, meaningful connection is going to be at the heart of healthy future workplaces, especially in light of the ascendance of technology like AI.

We should prioritise real connection, not disconnection

At the moment all the digital noise – the reason why some are calling for Right to Disconnect legislation in the first place – is getting in the way of the real value that humans bring to businesses; their minds and ability to free think and originate (as already touched on by Hopkins at the start of this article). This requires not only connection, but quiet and space to be able to lighten the cognitive load so we can think.

“Lots of the problems in the workplace, especially now many of us are geographically dispersed, are about losing that human connection. Those watercooler moments, where there’s body language, eye contact and other cues, aren’t happening. But the more and more we hand our work over to technology, the less human work will become. And work, at the end of the day, is all about relationships so I think we all need to be very, very careful at this point in time about how much we give away the essential parts of our humanity. We’re treading a fine line.”

Anna Kotwinski, co-founder of digital wellbeing company Shine Offline

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