The focus on employee wellbeing, mental health and work-related stress is more prominent than ever before. Employers, trade unions and civic organisations in the UK and abroad are considering new and innovative ways to improve wellbeing and mental health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, out of hours emails (i.e. emails sent and received out with the traditional 9 to 5 working day) are a prominent target.
In the UK the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has argued for some time that the Working Time Regulations fail to protect workers against excessive out of hours emails.
France introduced a ‘right to disconnect’ in 2017 requiring companies with more than 50 workers to draw up a ‘charter of good conduct’ setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails. Last year a company was ordered to pay a former employee £53,000 for failing to respect his ‘right to disconnect’.
Some high profile businesses have responded in kind. Volkswagen in Germany have configured employee email servers so that emails will only be received half an hour before and after the working day and not at all on weekends. Lidl in Belgium have adopted a similar approach, prohibiting internal email traffic between 6pm and 7am.
There is little consensus, however, on the benefits of such relatively bold steps. Research carried out by the University of Sussex found that policies preventing workers from using email out of hours could be difficult for those wanting to work flexibly, or for those with anxiety and a need to stay ‘on top of things’, Dr Emma Russell of the University, whose comments have found much media traction, argues that:
blanket bans would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritise work performance goals and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed. People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel like they are adequately managing their workload.
As with many things, a blanket response, despite having the best of intentions, may be ill advised. Employees are entitled to enjoy their evenings and weekends and generally shouldn’t be expected to regularly check or respond to emails out of hours. That being said certain employees may find it more stressful being expressly prohibited from sending emails and dealing with work flexibly.
Employers should have clear guidance in place setting out what is expected of employees and how remote and out of hours working should be approached. Clear support should be in place for employees; and line managers should be given guidance on how to provide this and when they should intervene to ensure an employee’s wellbeing isn’t being put at stake by an excessive inbox or daily schedule.