Unpaid Labour: The UK’s Hidden Pandemic

Covid working from home has caused an “epidemic of hidden overtime” that particularly affects women, leading to a need for new “right to disconnect” laws, according to a report from Autonomy thinktank.

With large numbers of employees working from home on devices that have been issued by the organisation they work for, many staff are finding it difficult to switch off and are increasingly working out of hours. The report from Autonomy states that unpaid labour is a growing problem in the age of increased home working, with women at a greater risk of negative health impacts and mental distress.

As part of the report, it proposed draft legislation that would create a “right to disconnect”, based on French law, which stipulates employees do not have to take calls or read emails related to work during their time off. This right means that every employee is able to switch off and enjoy their free time away from work without being disturbed, unless there is an emergency or agreement to do so, for example while ‘on call’.

The report called for two amendments to be made to the Employment Rights Act 1996 giving workers the right to fully disconnect from all work communications outside working hours and enabling them to bring employment tribunals for any breach.

The report suggested an employer should “not require a worker employed by him to monitor or respond to any work-related communications, or to carry out any work, outside the worker’s agreed working hours” or subject the worker to any detriment for failing to do so. There would be proposed exemptions for industries where that is not feasible and where the employer has made all reasonable steps to minimise working outside agreed hours.

The report said a previous study conducted by Autonomy, Compass and the Four Day Week Campaign about overwork during the Covid pandemic, found that at all stages of the crisis negative mental health impacts have been felt disproportionately by women.
The study found that women are 43% more likely to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week than men, and for those with children this was even more clearly associated with mental distress. Will Stronge, the director of research at Autonomy, said the Covid pandemic has “accelerated the need to create much clearer boundaries between work-life and home-life”.

Although it may at first seem beneficial to an organisation that staff are regularly working out of hours to get jobs done and respond to queries, it can actually be very damaging. Staff who are not able to properly rest after a day’s work, and continue the stresses of work out of hours, can become burned out, less productive and disillusioned in their role. This can lead to issues in retention and morale, things that can be very damaging for an organisation as a whole.

Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader who holds a shadow cabinet brief on the future of work, said: “Alongside the right to flexible working, there must be the right to disconnect. It is only fair that workers are able to establish healthy boundaries, switching off and disconnecting from work outside working hours.

In the modern workplace, we cannot find ourselves in a place where workers are expected to compromise their families, responsibilities or hobbies in order to meet employer expectations. It’s not a sustainable way to run an economy. Many good businesses want to see these sorts of protections guaranteed to workers across the board. “Labour will ensure that every worker has the right to flexible working and the right to disconnect. We need a new deal for working people and Labour will deliver it.”

As more organisations explore ways in which staff can continue to work from home on a more permanent basis, a right to disconnect could prove very appealing for many looking for new work. Not only can it help promote greater staff wellbeing, it can also be an effective way for the organisation to demonstrate it cares for its employees, something that can help retain staff and attract new employees.

The government has not as yet supported a right to disconnect but it has a flexible working taskforce looking at the issues around working from home that arose during the pandemic.