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This always-on culture we're in is awful. How do we stop it? Oh, sorry, hold on – just had another notification

Turn off. Tune out. Relax

Feature Just because the internet is always on doesn't mean that we should be. People need time away from work to relax and recharge, unencumbered by phone and email when working outside the office.

Advocates of work-life balance call this the right to disconnect. Many in the UK had hoped that the government would enshrine it in law. No such luck.

Earlier this year Prospect, the union representing professionals across a range of industries in the UK, pushed Her Majesty's Government to put the right to disconnect in an Employment Bill. Unfortunately, said Majesty failed to raise it in her speech to Parliament in May, which means that it's unlikely to happen, at least in the near term.

That left the union's director of communications and research, Andrew Pakes, "bitterly disappointed" and mulling what he calls a mental health time bomb.

"Increasingly, people during lockdown have been working longer, more intense days," he says.

The union worries the proliferation of mobile devices and collaborative platforms has created an "always-on" culture that blurs the boundaries between work and home life.

Always-on culture occurs when people can't switch off from their work. It isn't always obvious, but shows up in apparently innocuous events. Some people might find themselves fretting over emails marked "urgent" that arrive outside office hours. Others might feel tempted to respond to a Teams message from the boss asking the team for feedback, even though they have the day off. There might not be an official policy forcing them to, but the office culture might favour "team players" who drop everything to respond quickly.

The pandemic effect

Unreasonable work demands that intrude on personal space and time have been a thorny issue for years, but the pandemic threw it into sharp focus. Home workers will often log in during what would have been their commute time, Pakes says, creating a form of unpaid overtime. That's in addition to the emails that arrive out of hours from overzealous colleagues or those in different time zones that beckon you from your leisure time.

Prospect's survey results found 35 per cent of workers reporting a decline in mental health during the pandemic, with 42 per cent citing an inability to switch off from work as a contributing factor. One in three worked more unpaid hours than before the pandemic started.

The UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found nearly four in five employees working even when unwell earlier this year as they struggled with unmanageable workloads.

In July 2020, the US National Bureau of Economic Research found the time between the first and last email of the day expanding by 48 minutes on average for those working remotely under lockdown.

Constant connectivity is one disease that the coronavirus jab might not cure, Pakes warns. Post-pandemic economic uncertainties could make people less likely than ever to switch off, even if it affects their mental health.

"Coming out of this pandemic, where many people are anxious about job security, we don't know what the future working patterns will look like," he warns. "There's a real sense that bad work cultures before the pandemic will be amplified, coming out through digital technology and the real pressure on people to answer immediately, especially if we're all working different shifts and different patterns."

Legal remedies

Other countries have already taken the lead on the right to disconnect. France adopted a right-to-disconnect law (L2242-17.7) in 2016. It obliged companies with over 50 employees to issue a code of conduct setting out hours when employers should avoid contacting staffers. Spain and Italy have their own right-to-disconnect laws, and in April this year, Ireland's Workplace Relations Commission followed suit. It published a code of practice [PDF] on the right to disconnect, which protects employees' rights not to handle routine work out of hours and forces people to respect each others' rights to log off.

Now, in Canada, the federal government is pushing for a right-to-disconnect law of its own. As the country that kickstarted the whole "always-on" thing by cursing us with the BlackBerry, you'd have thought it would have been first in line.

The EU is also now mulling right-to-disconnect rules, leaving the UK lagging behind. For some, though, it makes sense to wait. Eileen Schofield, principal at legal firm Schofield & Associates, warns against imposing a right-to-disconnect law too quickly, at a sensitive time for the UK economy. She also warns against making a law so prescriptive that it would stifle flexible working. How do you define "after hours" when people are increasingly defining their own?

"I believe that it's something which needs some serious thought at the right time, and I imagine that 2022 is going to be the right economic climate for this to be a real genuine discussion," she says.

In the meantime, labour rights advocates must grapple with technology's increasing ability to enforce and amplify always-on culture. In many cases, this makes for some dystopian scenarios. In China, an almost comical surveillance cushion literally measures bums on seats. Lest you think such shenanigans wouldn't pass muster in the West, consider freelancers contracting through Upwork, who have been forced to endure its creepy monitoring software, which takes intermittent screen grabs and monitors their keystrokes to prove that they're working.

Technocrats don't seem to know where to stop. Microsoft tried to introduce a "productivity score" that measured how individual employees were using its tech tools. Pushback forced it to gather that data in aggregate only.

Perhaps critics were worried that it might end up like Amazon, which routinely monitors employee productivity in its panopticons and fires those who aren't up to snuff. Its tactics are reportedly so aggressive that while Uncle Jeff is headed to space, some of his minions can't spare time to visit the bathroom.

As technology's ability to monitor employees risks dehumanising them, our salvation might lie in nurturing those qualities that are innately human: trust, compassion, and cooperation.

"You need to have a culture of trust in your organisation," argues Ben Harrison, director of the Lancaster University Management School's Work Foundation, which promotes rewarding, fulfilling work.

Managers grappling with how to keep staff accountable during the shift to remote work need to embrace new approaches, he continues. "It requires a more engaged and proactive management, which is not really about catching the employee or monitoring the behaviour or the application of the employee, but rather progress towards achieving a set of shared goals and outcomes."

In short, if you want happier, more productive employees, respect their personal time. And if you want to manage them properly, then measure what they deliver, not how long they spend on the toilet. Are you listening, Jeff? ®

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