‘Always on’ culture: recipe for disaster?

Are the current working conditions in the UK detrimental to its workforce? Is there anything employers can do to ameliorate the effects of an ‘always on’ culture? What are the potential risks for employers?

The UK is experiencing a stress epidemic due to an ‘always on’ culture. Employees feel as though they are at work even when they are not contractually obliged to be. Emails are often sent to employees outside normal working hours and employees often report feeling pressured to respond. The UK has the longest working hours in Europe and the second longest in the developed world (source: weforum.org), however productivity within the UK workforce remains amongst the lowest.

Studies have shown that longer working hours do not lead to higher productivity. Other countries have recognised the importance of disconnecting from the workplace and de-stressing; France implemented a ‘right to disconnect’ law in 2017 in an effort to tackle the ‘always on’ work culture that is pervasive throughout modern society. The law requires French companies to clearly set out the hours in which staff should not send or answer emails.

Recently, the French Supreme Court heard a case regarding a high-level employee who was fired for asking for compensation for the extra hours he had to have his phone on to respond to any requests, in breach of his ‘right to disconnect’. In this case the court found that the employee was required to be paid for his time as his number was provided to call in the event of any problems. This reinforces the attitude towards the ‘always on’ culture in France; where employees who are required to go over and above their contractual obligations must be adequately remunerated.

France has a 25-hour working week, compared to the 48-hour standard working week in the UK. Figures show that this has had a positive effect on productivity. UK output per worker is over 12% lower than France (source: ONS.gov.uk). This indicates that France’s recognition of the importance of disconnecting from the workplace may have led to a more productive workforce.

Longer hours and constantly being available when outside of work can have a negative impact on employee wellbeing leading to poor health. In a recent survey, many employees report that they are losing sleep, feeling increasingly stressed and have less time to enjoy their private lives. 72.4% of employees reply to emails or make calls outside of contracted hours. 15% of adults report that constantly being online makes them feel as if they are at work. 21% of children in the UK feel parents don’t listen to them properly because they are always answering work calls or emails (source: CV-Library.co.uk).

These responses show that an ‘always on’ culture can negatively impact employees inside and outside of work, which in turn results in lower productivity. Emulating France’s model could potentially assist UK companies in increasing their productivity.

An ‘always on’ culture negatively impacts sleep quality, stress levels and family life. Almost half of UK employees have put leaving a job down to an unhealthy work life balance (source: CV-Library.co.uk).

A number of UK companies are increasingly recognising the importance of ‘switched off’ time alongside other work/life balance initiatives. It is increasingly common for ‘we do not give our employees a work phone’ to be given as a selling point when recruiting.

It is beneficial for employers to combat an ‘always on’ culture for many reasons. Most obviously, to increase productivity which in most cases increases profitability. From France’s example it is clear that when employee welfare is taken into consideration, the employer can benefit. Additionally, combatting this ‘on’ culture should help to improve employee health. Longer hours have concerning and yet obvious links to poor health and many employees admit to smoking and using alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Where such long hours and on call availability are necessary, the employer should make an effort to ensure that employees have further support, and that the expectation to be ‘always on’ is proportionate and reasonable. We have heard of some companies encouraging employees to add sentences such as “Although it suits me to email you at this time, I do not expect any reply or action outside of your working hours” as a signature to their emails, to lessen the pressure on other employees or third parties to respond. It may even be appropriate to have a policy stating that it will not be acceptable to reply to emails outside office hours, to encourage employees to manage their time effectively, in addition to supporting employees’ work-life balance.

Employers need to be mindful of the fact that overly stressed employees could bring claims for constructive dismissal, personal injury and in some cases discrimination if they are suffering from a disability as a result.

The BBC has recently published an article regarding flexible working, and a mother’s experience of the pressure to be ‘always on’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45484904

Please contact us if you have any queries about work/life balance initiatives.

This article is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking or deciding not to take any action.