Could it soon become illegal in the UK for your boss to contact you outside work hours?

Credit: Pixabay

 ITV News Multimedia Producer Suzanne Elliott

Portugal has banned employers from contacting employees by phone, message or email outside of their shift hours as part of new laws brought in to promote a healthier work-life balance amid a rise in remote working.  

The Covid pandemic led to a boom in home working, and despite life creeping back to normal, many companies are allowing - and in some cases even encouraging - their staff to continue to work remotely.

While homeworking offers many benefits for both employers and employees - productivity has been shown to have increased with staff working from home - there has been concerns that the boundaries between home and work are becoming frequently blurred, putting a strain on employees.

Portugal's new rules include:

  • companies should avoid contacting workers outside office hours, except under exceptional circumstances

  • at least every two months, staff should meet with their superiors to prevent worker isolation as part of anti-loneliness measures

  • companies should pay workers for additional personal expenses incurred at home, such as electricity or internet bills

  • the measure also stipulates that employers are responsible for providing workers with the appropriate equipment to do their jobs remotely

  • parents of young children can work from home with kids up to eight-years-old without having to arrange in advance with employers

  • forbid employers from monitoring employees when they work from home

Widespread working from home was one of the biggest behavioural changes of 2020. Credit: Marta Filipczyk/Unsplash

Analysis from the Office for National Statistics found people who work from home worked more unpaid overtime and were less likely to receive workplace training or be promoted.

Homeworkers did an average of six hours of unpaid overtime per week compared to 3.6 to people who never worked from home.

So is it time the UK switched off?

What are the current working from home rights?

The acceleration of homeworking has outpaced the UK's existing labour laws and there is little legislation aimed solely at remote working.

Employees working from home are still covered by the law on working hours, which means employees can not work above the 48-hour average weekly limit unless the company has opted out of the cap and you have agreed to this in your contract.

You may be able to claim tax relief for additional household costs if you work at home on a regular basis, either for all or part of the week. This includes if you have to work from home because of coronavirus.

The conciliation service Acas says employers should talk to their employees about covering any extra costs employees might have when working from home.

Employees have the same rights to rest breaks working from home. You have the right to an uninterrupted break of at least 20 minutes if they work more than six hours in a day.

You should get at least 11 hours' uninterrupted rest between finishing work and starting work the next day. Defining when your day ends and begins is harder with remote working.

Ben Willmott, head of policy for the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development said: “Homeworkers must be treated the same as office-based staff, with equal access to development and promotion opportunities."

There is no obligation for employers to provide computer or other equipment necessary for working at home, but, as Mr Willmott says, organisations have a "duty of care" to their staff who work remotely.

This could include a workstation assessment to ensure homeworkers have the right equipment and set-up that complies with health and safety regulations, such as appropriate chair or desk.

On the matter of expenses, Mr Willmott says: “Employers should confirm in contractual arrangements if the employee is expected to cover the broadband cost (plus heating and lighting) or if the employer will contribute towards these costs and, if so, to what extent. People who have to work from home may also be able to claim tax relief associated with costs, such as utility bills."

Millions have had to adjust to home working Credit: Joe Giddens/PA

Will the 'right to dis-connect' actually change anything?

Mr Willmott says drawing up regulations does not "address the real issues at the heart of so-called ‘always on’ culture".

“If a company is badly managed, where people have to work very long hours or under excessive pressure, simply giving them the legal right to choose not to respond to calls, emails or other digital communication outside of working hours won’t resolve these issues," Mr Willmott says.  

He says the solution is to ensure employees’ workloads are effectively managed and include realistic objectives, constructive feedback and problem solving to resolve issues which might led to people working excessive hours.

And the move to right to disconnect legislation alone looks like it would not have a great impact on workers' attitudes.

“Our research shows that only a fifth (18%) of workers would use a right to disconnect to prevent their employer from contacting them digitally at all outside working hours.

"A further 48% would allow their employer to continue to contact them for specific circumstances such as emergencies or during busy times of the year. A quarter (26%) would allow their employer to contact them outside of contracted hours without restriction.”

Working from home often means working at all hours. Credit: Pexels

What other countries have introduced right-to-disconnect laws?

Some European countries were ahead of the homeworking curve and introduced laws pre-pandemic. In 2017, a law gave French workers  the right to ignore after-hours business emails while Italy and Spain both brought in pre-Covid legislation around the right to disconnect.

Germany has taken a different approach with companies, rather the government, leading the way. Several multinationals, including Volkswagen, Daimler and Siemens, put agreements in place that protect workers’ right to log off and have used technology to enforce these policies. For example at Volkswagen non-management employees reportedly cannot access their email on their smartphones between 7am and 6.15pm.

Ireland's Covid-19-conscious code gives workers the right to not work outside normal working hours. Crucially, the code does not define 'normal working hours', acknowledging that employees are increasingly looking to set their own hours and that different roles have a different definition of 'normal' (for example if you deal with international clients you will usually be working outside the usual 9-5). The code also suggests training for managers so they can spot and intervene when an employee seems unable to disconnect.

People in the Canadian province of Ontario could soon have the "right to disconnect" from work when they clock off.

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