Lately there has been debate in many circles, including in politics, whether the UK should introduce a statutory “right to break” for teleworkers in order to improve mental health, reduce burnout and increase productivity. The debate is gaining momentum after many experienced a decline in their mental well-being during prolonged periods of homework during the Covid pandemic.

What is a right to separation?

In short, it gives employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal working hours, including the right not to answer business calls, read or reply to text messages, or respond to emails.

How are other countries dealing with this issue?

Several European countries have included the right to segregation in some form in their laws, while various large organizations have already included it in their policies, even if it is not required by law.

At the beginning of 2017, France became the first country to legally recognize the “right to switch off”. However, they acknowledged that a unified approach was not possible. Therefore, the rules and procedures for the use of electronic communication between the employee representatives and the employer must be negotiated for each individual company with more than 50 employees. The aim is to respect the non-working hours, vacation times and the private and family life of employees.

In April of this year Ireland introduced a code of conduct that gives all employees the right to leave work and have a better work-life balance.

The German vehicle manufacturer Daimler has long had a company-wide e-mail policy that protects employees during their vacation time and when they return immediately. Out of office messages can tell the sender that the recipient is on vacation and cannot read their email, who needs to be notified in the event of urgent problems, but that the sender’s email will be deleted and the sender will have to resend, if necessary with the Return of the employee from vacation.

Potential benefits of a right to separation

It has been shown that creating a clear line between work and personal life improves the health and wellbeing of employees by encouraging a complete “shutdown,” which also has the benefit of increasing employee productivity at work. There is no doubt that working from home has blurred the lines between work and personal life for many, and it is believed that remote working could be the area that could benefit the most initially.

When there is a formal right to separation, the pressure to join an “always on” culture is reduced. By clearly expressing the expected response between colleagues and supervisors, the ability to “switch off” completely in personal time is improved and engagement during working hours can be increased.

It can also raise awareness and promote a workplace culture that respects the importance of self-care and the life of employees outside of work.

Potential disadvantages of a right to separation

Companies that work in different countries and time zones may find a rigid right to separation restrictive and inflexible, which may increase rather than reduce work stress for employees.

In 2012, for example, Volkswagen configured its internal servers so that emails are not forwarded to employee accounts half an hour after the end of Flexidays, before the shift begins the next day and not at all on the weekend. This removes the ability for employees to check email outside of working hours instead of taking responsibility for whether or not they do it.

Perhaps this shows that what works for one person is not suitable for every organization. And underlines the need for flexibility and guidelines that have to be individually negotiated and agreed between management and its employees.

The advantages of flexible working must also be taken into account. For example, it can be beneficial for people with children or caregivers to take a few hours off during the day and return to work in the evening.

The reasons for the requirement for a right to interruption must be taken into account

It’s easy to believe that our current always-on culture has evolved with the advent and growth of digital communication and that we may only now have to think about a legal solution.

That may be true, but high workloads, excessive demands and poor communication from demanding bosses have harmed the health and well-being of employees long before e-mails or text messages appeared. The difference now is that the transferability of digital communication methods to our homes blurs the physical and psychological boundaries between work and private life.

It should be remembered, however, that these issues remain at the root of workers’ ability to disconnect and that they can and have been addressed by proactive employers who are committed to improving wellbeing, retention and the productivity of workers.

Tips to make the line between life and work clearer

So, while the discussion of a “right to separation” continues, and for those working in smaller businesses that may never fall under such legislation, here are some suggestions that we as individuals and teams can take to improve our mental health improve and possibly turn our productivity.

Communication –

  • Discuss workload regularly so everyone understands what their expectations for communication outside of business hours are.
  • Make your work days clear by adding details to your online signature or verbal advice to team members.
  • If you are in a managerial position and it suits your work pattern to process emails outside of normal office hours, clarify regularly that employees don’t expect them to read or reply until their next job.

Virtual commuting –

We hear a lot about the negative side of commuting, and not commuting is often high on the list of benefits of working from home.

However, commuting draws a physical boundary between work and home. Our brain often uses the commute to work to switch between work and private mode.

  • So if you work from home and are one of the lucky ones who has a separate room to work; After turning off your digital devices, take a moment to disconnect from work before closing your office door for the day.
  • If you work in the same room that you will be spending your free time in, try moving your work to a different room to make sure it isn’t a visual reminder all evening. A short walk, including around the block, can give your brain an opportunity to switch off from work.

Plan self-care –

Instead of leaving your personal needs as a mental list, add them to your journal. By writing them down and giving them a window of time in your day, they will become much more likely and will help you create successful boundaries between your work and personal life.

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