Many workers may have encountered a similar situation in the workplace. Even though it is time to leave work, their superiors or bosses continue to frequently contact them about work.


It is understandable that there are occasional cases where you need to work outside of your normal working hours due to emergencies or special reasons. However, if the boss has developed this “habit”, from time to time they will continue to interrupt the employee’s rest during the break time and let them take care of things, which is really annoying.


After all, this can lead to working hours and rest time being mixed together, blurring the lines between work and leisure.


This has been especially true in the wake of the pandemic, as more and more people have started working from home, making it even harder to separate work from the rest of your life.


But is it legal for an employer to consistently disturb an employee during non-working hours? And what should an employee do if this happens to them from time to time?


Australia takes the lead and fights for the “right to disconnect” for workers


Under Australia’s proposed new law, employees have the right to ignore messages, emails or phone calls from their superiors after hours. If employers continue to contact employees during off-hours hours, employers who violate the law may face criminal penalties.


In an Act of Parliament, the labour rights are described as the “right to disconnect”. To put it simply, it is the “right to disconnect” from work during off-duty hours.


Australia’s legislators believe this will protect the rights of employees and help restore greater work-life balance.


Specifically, if an employer contacts an employee during non-working hours, the employer who violates the rules may be fined and may even face criminal penalties.


Currently, a majority of Australian senators support the right to disconnect legislation. It is expected that the bill will be tabled in Parliament at a later date.


In Europe, similar laws have been enacted in France, Spain, Ireland and other countries in the European Union, giving employees the right to disconnect from the company after work hours.



Is there a similar law in the UK, and can an employee “disconnect” from their employer?


In the United Kingdom, the Working Hours Regulations 1998 set out workers’ rights in relation to working hours, rest periods and holidays.


These regulations ensure that the average working week cannot exceed 48 hours, however employees can opt out of this restriction on their own. In some high-intensity industries or jobs (e.g., investment banking), many people sign an employment contract with a statement that they are voluntarily withdrawing from the 48-hour work week limit imposed by law.


But generally speaking, most industries and jobs in the UK are between 35 and 40 hours per week, which is basically in line with the law.


That said, there is a distinction between “working hours” and “rest periods” in English law, which can infringe on an employer’s rest time if they expect their employees to handle work calls and affairs outside of their agreed working hours.


Generally, employees need to understand the details mentioned in the employment contract. For example, the employment contract should clearly stipulate working hours, and any work outside of the agreed hours needs to be agreed upon by both parties and, where possible, compensated.


In the absence of such an agreement, then employees are generally not legally obligated to answer work calls or handle work outside of working hours.


In the UK, many companies have a different policy: overtime compensation is available through a method called time off in lieu (TOIL).  This includes any time spent processing work calls outside of normal business hours, adding up to vacation time.


At present, there is no right to disconnect in the UK that requires employers not to contact employees after work hours. Nevertheless, the UK’s Labour Party has proposed a similar law dubbed the “right to switch off” if it gets into government, which could happen this year.



What are some good ways to achieve a work-life balance outside of work


In the eyes of many, continuing to work outside of normal working hours can show love and commitment to the job and may lead to career advancement.


Of course, there are also those who believe that it is more important to achieve a work-life balance, and that work is only a part of life. Many argue that this is a more prevalent attitude among Gen-Z workers than it was in decades gone by.


Both employers and employees need to establish a clear understanding of what is really urgent and what need to be dealt with urgently so that when some urgent issues arise and need to be dealt with during non-working hours, there are no adverse effects.


In the UK, many employers are increasingly valuing and respecting of employees’ leave, with many recognising the importance of leave for mental health and the continued maintenance of productivity.


There are several ways in which it is possible to improve your work-life balance:


  • Set up an auto-reply in your work email to let them know your working hours and use other ways to contact them if you have an urgent problem.
  • Add similar information to your work chat such as Microsoft Teams, including marking your working hours in the status bar.
  • Employees and employers should also have an open discussion about the necessity of after-hours work to find a mutually satisfactory solution to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and problems.


Our thoughts


Yitong namecard


In addition, Yitong Guo of Lisa’s Litigation Department reminds employers of the following:


Employers have a responsibility to focus on the health, safety, and overall well-being of their employees. This responsibility includes preventing excessive working hours, as long working hours and heavy workloads can lead to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression.


Employers must address these issues through reasonable accommodations such as reducing hours or workload, especially when mental health conditions are considered disability. Failure to do so would result in a claim for disability discrimination and constructive dismissal.


Employers can assist employees in adjusting to healthy working styles. This not only fulfils legal obligations, but also increases job satisfaction and productivity, and creates a positive work environment. In addition, prioritizing work-life balance can increase employee loyalty, retention, and team success.


Contact with employees during absences


Another reminder, especially for employers and businesses, employers and employees should agree on how to stay in touch during absences. Different types of absences may require different levels of communication.


For example, regular updates may not be required during leave, but employees on maternity leave may want to contact more frequently about work due to the length of time off.


Both parties must determine the frequency and method of communication, as well as the designated point of contact, such as a line manager or human resources manager. For employers and businesses, staying connected can provide an opportunity to monitor the health of their employees and provide support if necessary.


Regular contact is particularly important in situations of mental health-related absences, but should be done with the employee’s consent and should not be overwhelming for the employee.


During periods when employees are on leave for various reasons, including maternity leave, adoption leave, or other statutory holidays, employers must keep employees up to date on important matters that may affect their work, such as promotions, layoffs, or reorganizations.


Failure to do so may constitute discrimination against absent employees. Other types of advice can be found on the ACAS website or for professional legal advice.


That’s all for our discussion on the right to disconnect, click here for regular updates on our articles.


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