A ‘Right to Disconnect’ would help protect workers’ mental health

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Universal presumption that work will be safe, or at least as safe as it can be, is one of the key achievements of the labour movement over the last century.

Gone are the days of people crawling into moving machinery because it’s too costly to shut it down. But the new world of work brings its own challenges and it is up to us as trade unions to ensure that the rights of workers keep up with those changes.

When we think of safety at work many will tend to think about things like portable appliance testing, fire safety and all those other more specific procedures, depending on your place of work and the technology that you are operating.  But more and more, the leading industrial cause of time off work is poor mental health – and being contactable at all times is one factor that can feed into that.

In the last full year before the pandemic, 18 million days were lost at work due to anxiety and mental health conditions. Photograph: iStock

One in 10 sick days recorded at work during the last year were due to mental health conditions according to the latest ONS figures. These figures include stress, depression, anxiety and serious mental health problems. After the collective trauma of the pandemic, these figures may not be surprising, but they are deeply worrying.

Stress was a growing issue before the pandemic. In the last full year before the pandemic, 18 million days were lost at work due to anxiety and mental health conditions. A recent Resolution Foundation report found that between 1992 and 2017, the proportion of employees reporting working ‘under a great deal of tension’ increased from half to nearly two thirds, explained at least in part by the rise in people using digital technology and computers at work.

This is why trade unions are increasingly seeing mental health as a union issue. Increasing insecurity at work remains one of the hallmarks of our recovery from the pandemic, even if headline unemployment figures are low.

Andrew Pakes: "The world of work is changing, but the regulations that govern it are not."

Remote workers reporting poor mental health

While some of us may be gaining from the benefits of home working, for others the experience has been really challenging. A third of remote workers said their work-related mental health got worse during the pandemic, in a poll conducted by Opinium for Prospect in 2021. The same number said they also found it hard to fully switch off from work, leading to Prospect campaigning for new digital boundaries and a right to disconnect.

The pandemic has amplified existing inequalities and created further uncertainties around job security, family incomes and the future of work. Digital technology has made it easier to work from anywhere, but it has also added to our always-on culture making it easier for work to also follow us anywhere. The rapid growth in surveillance software, investment in automation and new technologies make change even more likely in the future.

The world of work is changing, but the regulations that govern it are not. Even before the pandemic, the increasing trend for home working and the growth of self-employment and freelancing were leaving gaps in our health and safety laws and working time regulations.

These trends, combined with our increased understanding of the risks of stress and poor mental health, are not accounted for by current legislation, which often looks at risk through the prism of the 20th century industrial economy.

There is already evidence about the positive role of unions in ensuring workspaces are safe and healthy. The Health and Safety Executive reports: “Workplace research provides evidence to suggest that involving workers has a positive effect on health and safety performance. Equally, there is strong evidence that unionised workplaces and those with health and safety representatives are safer and healthier as a result.” 

Rewarding and secure work needs to be central to our vision for a good life. If we want to build a better economy as we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, then we need to look at putting wellbeing alongside security and fair pay as the ingredients to help people get on at work. Prospect has already collaborated with the Work Foundation and employers to produce a practical guide to negotiating digital boundaries at work. The latest International Labour Organization report on social partnership also made clear that ‘collective bargaining played a crucial role during the pandemic’ by helping to keep people safe, protect jobs and promote wellbeing.

The challenge is two-fold: to ensure that wellbeing and mental health are central to the future of work, and that we have the legal framework in place to ensure workers have a voice over what that means in practice.

The ability to switch off

One of the key frontiers in this emerging battle to protect mental health at work is giving people the ability to switch off. Prospect has been at the forefront of the UK campaign for a Right to Disconnect, something that has been introduced in several European countries and which, if done properly, can benefit both business and workers. There’s no point in squeezing more hours out of your workers if you then lose an even greater number through sick days.

Even before the pandemic, digital technology meant that millions of us struggled to separate our work and home lives, with email and WhatsApp pinging night and day.

For many of us, working from home during the pandemic has brought these challenges into even sharper relief. That is why Portugal has joined a growing list of countries trying to challenge always-on work culture.

Recent research by Aviva found that 44 per cent of workers feel they can never switch off from work due to what they see as their employer’s preference for an always-on, ever-present culture. Prospect’s own research found a similar number who have experienced negative mental health outcomes in the pandemic due to the blurred lines between work and home.

The technology that has allowed so many of us to work from home, has also become the means of keeping us reachable at every hour of the day.

Make flexible working work

It doesn’t have to be this way. Prospect wants to see employers and workers agreeing new rules to stop the digital leash of constant working, and to make flexible working work.

This could be as light-touch as making it clear throughout the company that there is no obligation to respond to out-of-hours emails, or delaying sending messages until the recipient is back at work. Or setting rules for the use of work Slack or WhatsApp groups so that managers sending messages at 8pm on a Thursday night don’t expect answers from colleagues who don’t start work until the morning.

This won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for one type of job will inevitably be different to the rules that are appropriate workers in a different industry.

If we don’t have these conversations though, we risk adding to the stress of work rather than redesigning work for a flexible age. The emphasis should be on ensuring employers discuss the issue with staff and formulate policies that enable people to unplug – something good employers are already doing.

Where unions are present in a workplace these conversations are a natural extension of those already taking place on pay and terms and conditions. This needs to be part of a bigger discussion about the future of work, and we’re calling on government to take a lead on this by setting out a duty on employers to work with their staff on disconnect policies and in new digital protections against invasive surveillance and monitoring.

This is a modern dilemma of work that must be solved before it is too late. Our mental health is too important not to take action.

Prospect trade union represents 150,000 members across the public and private sectors. For more information see: prospect.org.uk

Digital Boundaries and Disconnection at Work – A Guide for Employers, from Prospect and the Work Foundation, is at: bit.ly/3PvMAtu

Andrew Pakes is Deputy general secretary and director of research and communications at Prospect trade union


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