Should we give employees the right to switch off?

This guest post, by former CIPD president Professor Sir Cary Cooper, highlights some of the problems with sending emails or messages outside of working hours.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper • 
Should we give employees the right to switch off?

Ponder this scenario for a moment.  

It’s the first day of your much-anticipated vacation, and you’re practically bursting with excitement. Like a child on Christmas morning, you bounce out of bed and quickly change into your swimming attire. Descending the stairs two at a time, you make a beeline for the pool. You’re on the cusp of that first refreshing dive when the lifeguard interrupts your stride. 

“Delivery for you, at reception.” 

Surprised, you meander back to the front desk where the receptionist hands you an unexpected stack of work. The words “sent by your boss” jolt you back to reality. 

“Don’t worry,” the receptionist attempts to comfort, “your boss doesn’t expect you to work on it right away. It will be sent up to your room, for when your holiday ends.” 

Is this agreeable? Absolutely not. 

I’ve often discussed the adverse effects of sending emails or Microsoft Teams messages outside regular working hours, to colleagues on sick leave, or those enjoying a well-deserved holiday. 

Yet, I suspect many still commit this very act. 

In days gone by, emails and instant messages were known as phone calls, and even further back, they were letters. Consider a world without electronic communication. Would it have been appropriate to phone a sick employee to discuss work? Most likely not. Would it have been acceptable to sneak work-related letters under their door in the dead of night? Unquestionably not. 

The convenience of emails, Microsoft Teams notifications, and other communication tools has made it easy to burden others with our workloads at any given time. What’s alarming is the prevailing notion that this is acceptable, often without any thought of the ramifications. 

What’s the solution, then? Individually, we can pledge to refrain from sending after-hours emails or messages. But while the individual’s pledge to refrain from after-hours communication is essential, as responsible employers, we must take the lead. Just like two German car manufacturers have shown us, with their exemplary steps… 

Volkswagen, back in 2012, recognised the potential harm of after-hours emails and took action. They put a block on their company’s Blackberry servers from sending emails or messages 30 minutes after employees’ shifts ended, and resumed them 30 minutes before the next shift began. Though this policy was specific to certain German employees under union-negotiated contracts, it marked a crucial first step towards healthier work-life boundaries. 

Similarly, Daimler took it a step further by developing a system that outright deletes emails or messages sent to off-duty employees. These communications are not set aside for later, they are simply eradicated, ensuring that the employees’ time off remains undisturbed. 

However, such policies are not universal, and many employees are still subject to their employers’ whims when it comes to the influx of after-hours communication. A significant change in this area often depends on whether a company chooses to combat this pervasive issue. 

This is, of course, unless you live in France, where the “right to disconnect” has been legally established. French companies now have a legal duty to regulate the use of out-of-office emails and other forms of communication. Initially, many critics, including myself, doubted the enforceability of this law. Yet, a British firm Rentokill was ordered to pay €60,000 to a former employee from its French branch for failing to respect his “right to disconnect” outside office hours. This case proves the law’s effectiveness and sets a precedent for other countries to follow. 

The UK is now considering a similar “right to switch off” for employees, a step that I wholeheartedly support. While flexible working hours are important, the constant barrage of communication beyond working hours can be detrimental to an employee’s mental health. 

Should your company block emails or Microsoft Teams messages from being sent outside of working hours? Maybe – it certainly helped set the tone in the examples outlined above. Ideally though, managers and colleagues should simply refrain from sending messages outside working hours. And while technological interventions may help, employers should also include allowances for vital business communications, and consider international time differences too. 

However you approach this subject though, it’s crucial to remember that the inability to disconnect from work can severely impact a person’s mental health. Regardless of where you live, or your company’s policy, it is essential for all of us to consider the effects on the recipient before hitting send on an email or a message outside their working hours. It’s not just about getting a task off your to-do list; it’s about fostering a culture that values and respects the boundaries between work and personal life. 

About the author

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CBE, is an esteemed expert in occupational health and psychology. Currently the 50th Anniversary Professor at Alliance Manchester Business School, he has authored numerous publications and was knighted in 2014 for his services to social science.