In the digitally-connected era employees are often expected to deal with work emails and further communication out of office working hours. This practice not only risk being detrimental to their wellbeing, it can also place companies into legal hot waters
Technology is both fantastic and terrible. It enables us to stay constantly up to date with what’s happening in the world and react quickly to new events. However, being constantly switched on can be problematic for both yourself and your staff members. So while you may not have a problem working almost as many hours as Elon Musk, who recently revealed he almost missed his brother’s wedding because of his workload, you shouldn’t put that kind of pressure on your employees.
If you’re looking for proof, we turn your attention to two recent law cases. The first case took place in France and was provoked by the country’s El Khomri law from 2017 which came into force to tackle the always on work culture. As a result, Rentokil, a British pest control company, had to pay an employee €60,000 for failing to respect his right to have a break from communication devices after work. The second case saw Kepak, a subsidiary of meat producer in Ireland, grant a business executive €7,500 as she was required to respond to out-of-hour work emails even after midnight, which was in breach of the maximum 48 working hours a week, according to Ireland’s Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.
A 2017 research by Bupa UK, a healthcare group, revealed that 74% of workers are checking work emails first thing in the morning and last thing at night. "For many of us we no longer need to be at a desk to work because of technology,” said Stuart Haydock, resilience lead at Bupa UK, speaking with Elite Business. “This can give us great flexibility but it also means work can easily blend into our home life.” But as convenience comes at a price, he clears that while the always switched on culture might be beneficial to the company, it can also impede employees’ wellbeing. “Excessive time online can lead to tiredness, low productivity, and poor mental health”, Haydock continued. “As we become more reliant on technology in our day to day lives, businesses should continue playing a role in protecting their people from the potential ill-effects.”
Marianne Page, a business growth consultant, points out the need of extra work is sometimes briefly mentioned in work contracts. “Employees are increasingly expected to answer out of hours emails and even have clauses in their contracts about being expected to work extra hours ‘as and when the needs of the business requires,’ she said. Page believes “this woolly sentence” is an object of concern for future employees and usually rings a bell that the phrasing can be masking out excessive hours of additional labour. As someone who has been part of an unhealthy work competition where she was required to always put in the extra effort, Page is aware that ”when we don’t outline to our team what is truly expected of them - when there are no set boundaries, we are asking for too much.”
Approaching the issue from a lawful perspective, Sean McDonough, partner employment and HR at Mogers Drewett, highlights the bits and bobs of the existing work regulations. “Unlike in France, where a recently-introduced new law gave employees the right to switch off devices, the UK has no law which specifically addresses out of hours email use,” he said. Despite the lack of an exact law tackling work emails, UK employees are entitled to certain rights. “UK employees have the right to work no more than 48 hours each week, unless they voluntarily opt out of this arrangement,” McDonough added. “Under this law, email use away from the office is capable of amounting to working time and would, therefore, contribute toward that total weekly limit.”
Another curious fact regarding employment is that workers have the right to 11 hours rest between working days, according to the government’s guidelines for contracts of employment and working hours. This is another aspect employers should be mindful of as requiring staff to stay tuned in after work can interfere with the law.
In this respect, Iysha Daftari-Clarke, solicitor at Barcan+Kirby, a law firm, advises that “employees should check their contracts before signing and consider overtime clauses and the implications of them.” She also suggests that although candidates might be very attracted by a certain role they are offered, “they should query any clauses they are concerned about before signing”.
The rise of technology might be making it easier for people to communicate around the clock but employers should set their staff’s work-life balance as a fundamental priority.