Labour Research (September 2021)


Homeworkers need the ‘right to disconnect’

The benefits of working from home need to be weighed against pressures on employees to be ‘always available’ — leading to demands for homeworkers to have a legal ‘right to disconnect’.

While the official government “work from home if you can” advice at the height of the pandemic was lifted on 21 June, all the signs are that homeworking or, at least, “hybrid” working, is here to stay.

According to recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 24% of businesses intend to use increased homeworking as a permanent business model while a further 28% are still deciding what their policies will be.

Surveys show that for some, homeworking has led to an improvement in their work-life balance. But for others, the increased reliance on digital devices has led to a blurring of boundaries between work and home life and a pressure to be available to handle work issues even outside of defined office hours.

‘Always on’ culture

For this reason, unions are increasingly voicing concern about the “always on” culture that some are facing and are ramping up the campaign for government measures to address the additional pressure this can put on employees’ mental health, wellbeing and working life.

Even before the pandemic, a 2017 study by the CIPD body for HR professionals found that almost a third (32%) of UK workers felt having remote access to the workplace meant they couldn’t “switch off” in their personal time.

And 40% said they actively checked their work mobile or emails at least five times a day outside of working hours. Other polls have since found the numbers facing this pressure to be even higher. One, by workspace provider, Office Group, from October 2020, found half (51%) of the 2,000 UK workers surveyed saying they had been working outside of their typical hours since lockdown.

The average worker put in an extra 59 hours of work at home — the equivalent of seven working days over just five months.

The Prospect union for specialists has carried out its own study into the impact this situation is having on workers. Andrew Pakes, director of research says: “People’s experience of working from home during the pandemic has varied wildly depending on their jobs, their home circumstances, and crucially the behaviour of their employers.

“It is clear that for millions of us, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, with remote technology meaning it is harder to fully switch off, contributing to poor mental health.”

A poll commissioned by the union confirmed that the combination of long working hours and higher demands during the pandemic has led to more cases of anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental and physical health issues.

Its research found that 35% of remote workers say their work-related mental health has got worse during the pandemic with 42% saying this is at least partly a result of inability to switch off from work.

Angus Wheeler-Rowe, a worker from the telecoms industry, was quoted in the The Guardian saying that working from home had “helped to keep people safe”, but had also “made it harder to separate work, home and family commitments.

“When your personal space becomes your office, and with no commute to bookend the day, pressure grows for longer days and response to requests at unreasonable hours,”.

It is a call they have led on since 2016 and which has now been strengthened by the addition of other union voices and the introduction of similar laws elsewhere in the world.

“Setting rules about the boundaries for remote or hybrid working would make a big difference in helping people switch off and recharge, especially if we are going to be spending much more time working from home in the future,” says Pakes.

“Reinforcing the distinction between work and home will increase motivation and at-work productivity, which has to be better for bosses and workers.”

Right to disconnect

The right to disconnect refers to a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours.

The concept was first developed after the widespread use of smartphones and other digital devices led to employers pressuring staff to be constantly accessible when working remotely. Prospect first called for this right as part of the union’s view that the increasing use of technology and data analytics is changing the relationship between workers and employers.

Other closely related digital technology issues requiring protection for workers include the use by management of data generated by workers and of monitoring and surveillance software.

In March 2021, the TUC got behind the campaign with its Dignity at work and the AI revolution manifesto. Among many other demands around new technology and transparency, worker voice, equality, data awareness and human connection, it calls for “a statutory right for employees and workers to disconnect from work, to create ‘communication-free’ time in their lives”.

Pakes says that including a right to disconnect in the Employment Bill “would be a big step in redrawing the blurred boundary between home and work and would show that the government is serious about tackling the dark side of remote working”.

The union’s research says 66% of those working remotely currently support such legislation.

However, there is little sign yet of any government action on the issue, as a promised Bill on workers’ rights has been repeatedly delayed.

A spokesperson for the BEIS business department made only a vague commitment that, when introduced, the Bill “will deliver the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation, including measures that will help people to balance work with their personal lives”.

Other governments have been faster to recognise that the expectation that workers should be always available for online or mobile communication is potentially hazardous to workers’ health.


In April 2021, the Republic of Ireland amended their official code of practice to give employees the right to “disconnect from work”.

The code is designed to complement and support the rights and obligations of both employers and employees under Irish employment legislation and sets out the key elements of the policy:

• the right of an employee not to routinely perform work outside normal working hours;

• the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; and

• a duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect


A new legal right was pioneered in 2017 in France, where leisure-time is fiercely guarded and there is a shorter working week. There, employers with more than 50 workers have been obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, negotiated with union representatives, setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

However, as the law doesn’t specify what procedures employers must put in place to ensure a workers’ right to disconnect, the level of protection is likely to differ widely from employer to employer. Additionally, employees at organisations with fewer than 50 employees cannot enforce their right to disconnect.

European Union

France may well soon be joined by the rest of the EU. In January 2021, the European Parliament recommended to the European Commission that the right to disconnect should be an EU-wide fundamental right.

Currently, the Working Time Directive refers to a number of rights related to similar issues: in particular, the minimum daily and weekly rest periods required to safeguard workers’ health and safety.

The EU has also recently been concerned more generally with promoting a better work–life balance.

This can be seen in Principles 9 (work–life balance) and 10 (healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment and data protection) of the European Pillar of Social Rights — which commits to common minimum standards across the EU — as well as the directive on work–life balance for parents and carers.

However, the UK government is no longer obliged to match these provisions.


In Canada, the federal government is also investigating a similar policy.

It has established a Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee, consulting with unions and business leaders to develop rules that would enable employees to disengage after regular working hours.

Other countries

Some legislation on the right to disconnect has also been implemented in recent years in Italy, Spain, Slovakia and the Philippines.

In the absence of legislation on the issue, unions can bargain and have been bargaining for similar protections.

An early example comes from 2016 in Germany where transport union EVG signed an agreement, “Work 4.0”, with the state-owned railway Deutsche-Bahn.

This puts the “promotion of worker health” with the use of new technologies at its heart.

It has a section on “stress, dissociation and health protection”. It acknowledges that the use of mobile technology, for example smartphones and tablets, requires a multitasking ability that can potentially cause psychological stress to workers.

It also specifies that the constant “availability” that mobile technology enables should be regulated — that workers be given the right to disconnect and that full “psychological” risk assessments be undertaken for remote working.

It also ensures the employer provides funding for activities such as stress management seminars. Last year in Spain, the public services union federations, FSC-CCOO and FeSP-UGT signed a new agreement on remote working covering 2.5 million public sector employees.

The agreement includes basic principles that remote working arrangements should be voluntary and reversible and subject to key provisions relating to health and safety, equality, transparency and objectivity. It also guarantees a right to disconnect, data protection and the right to privacy.

UK model agreements and guidance

In the UK, several unions have produced model agreements and guidance for unions looking to negotiate on the issue. Prospect is promoting a template drafted by the Irish Financial Services Union. Its preamble reads:

“…. we support our staff’s right to disconnect. As an employer, we do not expect staff, normally, to work more than their contractual working hours.

“If you find you are, you should talk to your line manager or your union representative.”

It continues: “If you do receive a work email, or any other form of communication outside of working hours, there is no expectation that you read it or respond until you are working.”

The model agreement then proposes specified commitments on hours of work and overtime; disconnect out of hours; regular breaks and lunchtime; managing meetings and times; oncall, standby, weekend attendance and other allowances; culture of work; and complaint procedure.

General union Unite also has a template homeworking agreement which includes a clause on the right to disconnect.

It commits employers and workers to the provision of “compliance records regarding employee working hours including starting and finishing times, rest breaks, daily breaks and weekly breaks and to ensure compliance with working time legislation” so employees do not feel obliged to be constantly connected.

The UNISON public services union also provides guidance on the issue.

Official data

ONS data published in April 2021, shows that 35.9% — or 8.4 million people — were completing duties from their place of residence at some point at the height of the pandemic.

The figure compares with 12.4% in 2019.

Who works from home?

Industry Mainly Work from Home Have Ever Worked from Home
Information and communication 14.8% 53.1%
Professinal, scientific, technical activities. 12.8% 46.3%
Real estate activities 12.3% 40.3%
Agriculture, forestry and fishing 8.6% 39.0%
Financial and insurance activities 5.2% 38.9%
Education 2.7% 38.3%
Arts, entertainment and recreation 9.9% 33.3%
Other service activities 7.8% 30.3%
Electricity, gas, air cond supply 4.9% 29.6%
Public admin and defence 2.6% 29.4%
Extraterritorial organisations 4.6% 27.8%
Construction 3.8% 25.9%
Mining and quarrying 5.7% 24.8%
Admin and support services 5.6% 23.2%
Manufacturing 3.9% 21.1%
Water supply, sewerage, waste 1.9% 20.4%
Health and social work 3.9% 20.3%
Households as employers 10.8% 19.5%
Wholesale, retail, repair of vehicles 3.2% 13.4%
Transport and storage 1.8% 11.0%
Accommodation and food services 2.1% 10.0%

Source: Office for National Statistics

The groups with the highest rates of homeworking last year were “women, those working in information and communication, those residing in or working in London and those in professional occupations”.

Those working in the accommodation and food service sector were among the least likely to home work at just 11.4%

Prospect, Right to disconnect: ensuring a fair work-life balance (

TUC, Dignity at work and the AI revolution (

Unison, Bargaining on working hours (

Unite, Template homeworking framework agreement (

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