Employers regularly market themselves as supporting their staff to enjoy a good work-life balance.
A key factor in employees being able to achieve a balance between fulfilling their employment duties and responsibilities outside work is flexibility in their working arrangements, which usually includes options to take time off, working from different locations or working at different times of the day, week or year. Commercial and financial demands mean that for many organisations a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday working week based in the office can no longer be the norm.
Employers who support their employees in achieving a satisfying work-life balance are also likely to attract and retain high calibre employees, see a reduction in sickness absence levels due to improved employee wellbeing and experience high levels of engagement leading to increased productivity. No doubt advancements in technology have played a significant role in employers being able to offer flexibility, as employees are able to stay in touch with company-provided mobile phones and other electronic devices.
Whilst there are apparent benefits all round, this way of working has its critics who consider that a heavy reliance on company-provided technology to offer flexibility could ultimately undermine the benefits a good work-life balance aims to bring. Several issues have been highlighted. Some individuals may find it difficult to disconnect from the workplace once they have finished work and feel under pressure to respond to calls and emails. Commercial and operational demands may create a management expectation that employees will be available 24/7, resulting in employees having to respond late into the night, over the weekend or even while on holiday. These concerns highlight a blurring of the line between work and home life; critics say this results in staff never having any quality downtime, leading to poor health and stress, a lack of productivity and ultimately the loss of good members of staff. These concerns are all issues that a good work life balance was supposed to address.
Critics appear to have raised legitimate concerns, but what is the answer?
Currently there are no specific British laws which control the use of company-provided devices out of hours. One way forward would be to legislate for the problem in the same way as in France, where a mechanism has been introduced to ensure that organisations with over 50 employees implement arrangements to allow employees to disconnect from digital devices with a view to protecting their rest time, leave and personal life. On balance there is unlikely to be any appetite for similar legal controls here. Already, employers must protect employees’ health by providing a safe system of working and there is more than ever a greater awareness about protecting employees’ mental health. Employers must also comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998. The limitation on working hours, and the right to breaks and annual leave could not be clearer. Employers who fail to comply with their obligations could face sanctions and penalties. Whilst many employees opt out of the 48-hour working week to provide employers with more flexibility, if they are pushed too far they could always opt back in or ultimately resign, alleging constructive unfair dismissal and in some cases discrimination.
Whilst there is already a framework within which employers and employees should be operating to manage legal risk, the critics may have a point as ultimately the use of mobile and digital devices could undermine the desire for improved workplace performance. Some larger global organisations have addressed the issue by introducing tough policies. Volkswagen stopped forwarding emails to company mobile phones between the hours of 6:15pm and 7:00am. Daimler automatically deletes emails sent during annual leave. Each organisation is however likely to need rules that reflect their resources, operational demands and what staff want. Not all staff want to lose autonomy and flexibility and consider that having company provided devices allows them to work more flexibly. The key to a successful policy is clarity around expectations and when employees can or must switch off their devices when away from work.
Given that we are operating in a global competitive market that demands products and services to be delivered 24/7, a total ban on electronic access and communications outside working hours is, for most organisations, unlikely to be possible. Employers instead should consider managing the legal risks and silence the critics by working to create the right balance between employee welfare and their own commercial objectives.
For more information on this topic, please contact a member of the FG Solicitors team on [(01604) 871 143] or email firstname.lastname@example.org.