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The Scottish government has announced its support for establishing a “right to disconnect” for public sector and government employees, making it the first government in the UK to publicly come out in favour of the right.
Under the right to disconnect, employees would be entitled to “switch off from work” and not engage in digitally enabled communications outside of their normal hours, including not having to respond immediately to work-related emails, telephone calls or other messages.
The pledge formed part of the Scottish government’s wider budget announcements on 9 December 2021, and was outlined in its public sector pay policy document for 2022 to 2023.
“The policy also introduces an expectation that employers will have meaningful discussions with staff representatives about introducing a right to disconnect, providing a balance between the opportunities and flexibility offered by technology and our new ways of working to support the need for staff to feel able to switch off from work,” it said.
“In line with this government’s commitment to a healthy work-life balance, this pay policy introduces the requirement for all employers to have meaningful discussions with staff representatives about the right to disconnect for all staff, discouraging an ‘always on’ culture.”
The decision has been welcomed by the Prospect union, which has long-campaigned for the introduction of a right to disconnect in the UK.
“People’s experience of working from home during the pandemic has varied wildly depending on their jobs, their home circumstances, and – crucially – the behaviour of their employers. This latest move by the Scottish government will put the spotlight on burnout and tackling our growing digital always-on culture,” said Andrew Pakes, Prospect director of communications and research.
“The best employers are already recognising the importance of agreeing with their staff the boundaries between work and home life. This is because it delivers more satisfied and productive staff, who are more likely to stay.
“But we need government action too. The Scottish government are now moving forward for their own staff, it is time for the UK government to bring forward an Employment Bill, and include this right for workers right across the UK.”
Richard Hardy, Prospect national secretary in Scotland, added that the government’s commitment to a right to disconnect is an important step forward for public sector workers.
“We are consistently hearing reports of an increase in burn out, stress and blurring of lines between home and work life. This is a trend that existed before the pandemic, but has been accelerated because of it,” he said.
“We have seen right to disconnect supported by the Scottish Fair Work Convention, and now have been successful in persuading Scottish ministers to progress this for their own staff.
“It’s been good to work with cabinet secretary Kate Forbes and first minister Nicola Sturgeon on this issue and pay tribute to their support for this important concept – we will now seek to engage with employers and our members to progress this in each workplace.”
In April 2021, polling commissioned by Prospect found that that a significantly higher number of workers support (59%), rather than oppose (17%), a right to disconnect policy in the UK.
This support was strong across all age groups and with voters from all political parties – for example, out of the Conservative-voting workers polled, 53% supported the idea compared to just 22% that did not.
When asked about the potential downsides of prolonged remote working, 35% of workers said their work-related mental health had worsened during the pandemic, with 42% saying this was at least partly the result of not being able to switch off from work.
A further 30% of remote staff also reported working more unpaid hours than they did before the pandemic, with 18% working at least four additional unpaid hours per week.
Other UK-based trade unions are similarly calling for a legal right to disconnect. The TUC, for example, published a report in March 2021 warning that huge gaps in British law over the use of artificial intelligence (AI) at work will lead to discrimination and unfair treatment of working people.
“It might be thought that these new technologies would be liberating for workers, and in some ways they can be,” wrote the report’s authors. “But new technologies are encroaching significantly on workers’ private spheres over and above the proper limits of professional and working time.
“Increased digitisation, through AI and other forms of technology, is contributing to an ‘always-on’ culture in which employees are never completely free from work. There is a growing sense that employers are increasingly expecting their workforce to be easily contactable all times.”
Specifically, it enshrines: “The right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours; the right to not be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours; [and] the duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (e.g., by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours).”
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