‘It just doesn’t stop!’ Do we need a new law to ban out-of-hours emails?

‘When you get these emails on your phone, as we all do now, the pressure to do something is huge.’ Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian

Work & careers

During the pandemic many workers have felt more under siege than ever from work emails that arrive at all hours. Could the legal right to disconnect help?

Tue 29 Jun 2021 05.56 BST

For 10 years, Jonathan has been available on email. He receives messages as early as 6am and as late as midnight, and steadily for a 12-hour stretch every day. And right from when he first became a lawyer, the clear expectation was that he would do his best to read them as soon as they came in.

“When you get these emails on your phone, as we all do now, the pressure externally and internally to do something is huge,” Jonathan, 41, from north-west England, says.

Grimacing, he remembers checking his inbox while on holiday with his partner, which led to a blazing row in the middle of a tourist spot. “I was told: ‘What can you do about it here?’ I said: ‘I can’t do anything about it – but I need to know, I need to see if there’s anything for me to reply to.’”

We were already struggling to maintain boundaries around work before the pandemic; for many of us, its migration into the home has been the final blow. Those of us who work remotely are now working longer, more intense days – and the most obvious sign may be the sisyphean task of managing our inboxes.

A study last year of 3.1 million workers in North America, Europe and the Middle East found “significant and durable increases” in both the average number of emails sent internally, and the number of recipients. By measuring the time between the first and last emails sent (or meetings attended) in a 24-hour period, the researchers concluded that, since the pandemic, the average workday had extended by 48.5 minutes.

Social media manager Katie, 27, says she is being sent emails as late as 10pm or 11pm. “With remote working, people will blindly fire emails towards you at any hour, hoping you’re still around to pick them up – there’s a complete disconnect,” she says. The sound of another one landing in her inbox, taking her out of her evening wind-down routine, soon became so triggering that she turned off notifications on her phone and laptop.

“I know it’s because my colleagues are swamped with work and are just trying to clear their workload before the next day piles on … but hearing that bing when you’re eating dinner or sitting in front of the TV just makes it feel like you’re permanently at work.”

Muting alerts has helped Katie to maintain boundaries, making it her decision whether to check emails after hours – which, she admits, she will do. “It can be really hard if you’re a newbie and want to show your worth.”

Which gets to the heart of the issue of receiving work emails outside work hours. Some might argue that not checking them is easy enough, but the steady stream of communication – emails, texts, instant messages, group chats, calls – is only symptomatic. The real problem is much harder to tackle: the modern world of work, and the expectation that you should always be available to your employer.

“There was a real sense, pre-pandemic, that digital technology was blurring the lines between work and home, and that’s just been turbo-charged,” says Andrew Pakes, research director of the Prospect union. “People aren’t able to relax or switch off, and that’s adding to the psychological pressure.” In the UK, Prospect is pushing for what might seem, to some, like a radical solution to inbox management: government intervention.

It wants “the right to disconnect” to be recognised in employment law reform slated for later this year, preventing bosses from routinely contacting employees outside work hours or when they are on leave. Labour has also lent its support as part of a package of measures to protect flexible working.

Under Prospect’s proposal, companies with 50 or more employees would be required to negotiate with staff and unions annually on a plan for managing after-hours contact, though implementation would be left up to each employer. A similar law took effect in France in 2017, to much global fanfare; Italy and Spain followed suit.

The pandemic has only accelerated this interest in a right to disconnect. In February, the European parliament called for it to be recognised as fundamental across the EU, pointing to the toll of “an always-on culture” on work-life balance. Slovakia introduced a law this year. In April, Ireland introduced a “code of practice” requiring not only proactive engagement on the issue but reviews, training and equity checks. In Canada, the government is exploring a similar policy; Dutch politicians are waiting to debate the subject.

Jonathan’s struggle to switch off, a continuing source of personal misery and relationship tension, has only worsened since the pandemic – to the extent that he is now considering leaving law. “I can just see that I can’t do this for another 30 years,” he says. “You have to ask if it’s right. I hate the term ‘mental health’ – but what toll is it going to take on people when 15 months of the pandemic has already had such a significant impact?”

Anna Rudnicka, a research fellow at the Interaction Centre at University College London, says that, in offices, we took for granted cues – from our colleagues, or our daily routines – to take breaks, eat lunch and stop working. “Now, many people don’t know if it’s OK to take a break,” she says. It’s even hard to know how to, with our personal and professional devices so often the same.

This extension and intensification of the workday is leading to measurably poor health outcomes: notably, inactivity, disrupted sleep, repetitive strain injuries, stress, depression, anxiety and burnout.

Barbara, 50, a teacher in central England, recently took a month off to recover from illness – and still received emails with questions that only she could answer, and requests for her return. Headings such as: “Don’t read until you’re back!” did little to alleviate the pressure; for Barbara, the fact that she was well enough to use a computer meant she felt pressure to reply. “I thought I’d try to get ahead of the game, do a bit of work,” she says, sounding exasperated, not least with herself. “It just doesn’t stop.”

‘It’s relentless, it really is. It doesn’t account for family life, or down time – and that’s where it’s got to change.’ Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian

Over nearly 30 years of teaching, Barbara says, the actual job hasn’t changed much. What is different is the demands on teachers’ time – from parents, now with their own dedicated messaging platforms, to headteachers, able to delegate around the clock.

“It’s relentless, it really is,” she says. “It doesn’t account for family life, or down time – and that’s where it’s got to change.”

Her own attempts to manage expectations of after-hours availability are undermined by some of her colleagues’ all-hours replies. “Some people don’t mind,” says Barbara. “I think that’s because they’ve never known it any other way.”

But even if individual boundaries can be maintained, it’s hard to effect change as an individual, under pressure and overworked. Even while she was off sick, Barbara admits, a quick glance at her inbox was better than letting communications pile up. “Going back after a month and picking through the hundreds of messages on Teams, and everything else – it would have taken days,” she says wearily. “It’s almost like, better the devil you know … I do think we can be our own worst enemies.”

There is a vicious cycle in our approach to work, says Rudnicka – people feel anxious, pressured and distracted, and they put more effort into being visible to compensate. “It creates a culture of availability: if your colleague is sending an email, you don’t want to be the one person who doesn’t reply,” she says.

The challenge is how to go about dismantling this culture. Every email received after hours presents workers with a dilemma: answer it, and uphold an unsustainable system – or refuse to reply on principle, and risk potential repercussions. Which are real: Office for National Statistics data from before the pandemic shows that people who worked from home were significantly less likely to receive promotions, training or bonuses compared with those who worked in the office. Amid job insecurity in the Covid-19 era, workers may feel even more unable to push back on unreasonable demands.

Claire Mullaly, an IT consultant based in Belfast, recently spoke out about her own email overload to raise awareness of Prospect’s campaign. “It’s not just a boss in an emergency … it’s constant,” she says, sounding as if she is under siege. For Mullaly, the issue goes to the structure of the type of work she does. Because she is contracted for specific projects, she needs to be available, if only so as not to miss out on opportunities, while the growth of the gig economy has removed the safeguards that come with more permanent employment. “The power has been removed from workers an awful lot,” she says. But managers are struggling, too. “It’s like a pyramid scheme of pressure.”

Recognising work-life balance as a labour-law issue would enable workers and unions to speak up, and force employers to confront the realities of their operations. “Ultimately, if people are routinely doing work outside their paid hours, we need to have a long, hard look at why,” says Pakes.

A highly individualised, dynamic approach to workplace organisation where schedules are built around employees’ needs has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing overwork. But for such a nuanced challenge as that, legislation may be too blunt a tool. Indeed, enshrining the right to disconnect could be at odds with greater variation in work patterns built to accommodate childcare or colleagues in different time zones, warns Ella Hafermalz, associate professor at the KIN Center for Digital Innovation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

“When you start to forbid people from working at particular times – for example, by deleting emails that are sent after hours – what sounds like an empowering initiative can instead become paternalistic, undermining the autonomy that flexible working is meant to offer,” she says. “That kind of flexibility in time and space has been fought for and we don’t want to lose it.” In workplaces where overwork is entrenched, external interventions can be helpful. But more often, says Hafermlaz, “being able to disconnect is usually a matter of company or sectoral culture”. Indeed, a survey of French executives after le droit à la déconnexion took effect in 2017 found that 78% were continuing to read work emails and texts outside work hours.

The labour code only requires that companies negotiate an agreement, and just 16% of such documents have been found to be precise in their definitions of work tools and times. There are also no sanctions for employers for non-implementation, prompting calls especially during this pandemic, for the law to be clarified and strengthened.

It shows the limitations of legislation without buy-in from employers, but it also presents a more immediate route to change – through direct negotiations with employers.

In Germany, for instance, it has long been standard to negotiate the right to disconnect directly with employers. Volkswagen was reportedly the first company worldwide to make it a policy not to forward internal emails to private accounts between 6.15pm and 7am. The telecoms giant Orange recognised the right to disconnect in its collective labour agreement in 2016.

Other companies have followed suit with measures such as allowing workers to switch off mobile phones after hours, or pausing the delivery of emails over the weekend. Since the pandemic, some employers have given staff more paid time off in the hopes of staving off burnout. All 700 employees of the dating app Bumble just had a week to go “fully offline”.

This suggests that companies are recognising the importance of work-life balance – if only for their bottom lines. Creating lasting change takes commitment and resources, says Mullaly, “but the benefits are there: you’ve got people that are happy, rested, not jumping from job to job”. In the longer-term, retention and performance would improve; companies could even advertise themselves as a “right-to-disconnect employer” to attract talent, she suggests.

But disconnecting is more than just a perk – it is “one of the big health and safety challenges of this new era,” says Pakes. Even pre-pandemic, in 2019, 18m workdays were lost in the UK to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. And the true toll is only just becoming clear. A landmark study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) last month found that working 55 hours a week or more was associated with a significantly elevated risk of stroke and fatal heart disease. Long hours were responsible for one-third of all workplace deaths, a risk factor entirely overlooked until now.

Such figures make stark the cost of our current approach to work, and the shortcomings of existing provisions to protect us. The WHO and ILO have recommended more legislation and collective bargaining to protect workers’ health – but first there needs to be acceptance that work needs to change.

The timing is critical as the sudden shift to remote and hybrid working takes root. Without protections, Pakes suggests, this could result in a “new pecking order”, where workers are valued primarily for their availability, and professional roles could be dismantled into discrete tasks. “We don’t want to hardwire new forms of inequality and discrimination.”

In the past, flexibility has been presented as a bonus – offering workers greater convenience or autonomy – while eroding boundaries in practice. Abigail Marks, professor of future of work at Newcastle University Business School, notes that a huge increase in productivity reported last year was hailed as a triumph of home working, despite the known prevalence of burnout. “It’s not psychologically possible for us to keep working in this way,” she says.

In the future, we may also be forced to explore other measures of performance than output – emails among them. The first step, Marks says, is that we “stop this raw celebration of productivity” and push back on the inference that it is worth the sacrifice of our time and health.

Barbara recently did this with her boss. “I said: ‘We bang on about health and wellbeing, and how important it is, but you sent me a message last night at 10 minutes to nine.” They have a good relationship, and he was apologetic. “He said: ‘I just typed it and didn’t think’ – and that’s the problem.” She is fully in favour of the right to disconnect being recognised in law, to reach for as backup in those conversations.

When every email adds up, we can all do our bit. Workers can support each other by unionising (Prospect has published a guide for representatives) and holding back on after-hours correspondence where possible.

Rudnicka, who has been researching strategies for effective remote working as part of the eWorkLife project, says changing your work email signature to state your hours or availability can model good boundaries. Likewise, limiting the number of times you check your work inbox each day, which can be presented to your boss as necessary to achieve focus.

But, Rudnicka adds, management needs to take the lead – not only by materially supporting employees to switch off and take breaks, but doing the same themselves. “The whole company has to make sure that it’s OK for people to disconnect,” she says. That might mean giving employees dedicated devices to be turned off outside work hours; or adopting an “email charter” to discourage people from sending unnecessary messages and expecting instant replies.

Barbara, now back at work, has been taking the initiative: muting notifications, putting a send-delay on emails to keep them to work hours, and warning her colleagues she won’t check them on weekends. These could be quickly made policies, she says. “It’s people that would have to change.”

Some names have been changed. Additional reporting by Kim Willsher in Paris

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Elle Hunt