Last reviewed 4 June 2021
Dr Jonathan Lord and Dr Alex Fenton consider how work is creeping into workers’ lives outside of the workplace and affecting their mental health and wellbeing.
This feature has been adapted from a Strategic Briefing authored for Croner-i.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen many organisations forced to swiftly adopt remote working practices. Significantly more employees have worked from home than ever before, taking with them the equipment to do so. Prolonged homeworking can obviously increase the blurring of the lines between “work” and “home” and, as many businesses adopt remote working as the “norm”, the right to disconnect takes a higher profile.
In fact, the CIPD is backing calls from the union Prospect to include a right to disconnect in the upcoming Employment Bill, in order to create a boundary between work and home. This would require employers to agree with staff when employees can not be contacted for work purposes.
It follows a poll for Prospect by Opinium which found that 30% of remote workers are working more unpaid hours since the pandemic began, with 35% of remote workers saying that their mental health has got worse during the pandemic and nearly half attributing this, at least partly, to being unable to switch off from work.
Over the last couple of decades, it has become increasingly necessary — and the norm — for employees to be accessible for work outside their working hours, whether online or by phone.This can be detrimental to the mental health and wellbeing of many.
It’s been more than 20 years since the implementation of the European Working Time Directive provided a legal framework for employers and employees to understand the boundaries of when they can and should have a rest from work.
The framework now seems somewhat ineffective. An “always on” culture has been integrated into organisational culture disguised as an employee benefit: increased flexibility or more control over when employees work. However, in reality, this type of working can result in longer hours and increased work due to a blurring of boundaries and a lack of structure to the person’s role and responsibilities.
The Karoshi problem and the “996 system”
Cultures can also affect working practices. This is highly visible in Japan, where the work culture has been so intense it has given rise to the phrase “Karoshi” (death by overwork).
The problems of Karoshi were highlighted when Japan’s state-run news channel NHK eventually admitted that overwork had caused the death of a 31-year-old NHK female reporter in 2013. The employee died of heart failure and had been found to have worked 159 hours of overtime and taken only two days off in the month prior to her death.
This is only one of the suspected thousands of deaths from overwork each year. A 2016 report (Berke, 2018) examined Karoshi cases and their cause of death. It found that more than 20% of Japanese workers surveyed worked at least 80 hours of overtime a month and more than 20% work an average of 49 hours or longer each week, with half of all respondents stating they did not take paid holidays.
A similar working culture in China has also unintentionally developed the “996 working time system”. This has become an implied routine for industries such as the technology sector, where employees are required to work from 9am to 9pm every day for six days a week. What has made the situation even worse is that little or no overtime payments are made for these extended working hours.
The UK has also steadily adopted a similar working culture which has been highlighted in a report by Jobrapido (2019), which found that over half of UK employees who work additional hours outside their contract do not get paid overtime. The report also found that 60% of UK employees check their phone or email for work purposes at least once a day while on holiday and 38% of the UK admit to suffering from work-related stress.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) believes that the feeling of needing to “always be connected” has been on the increase when mobile phone technology enabled employees to check and respond to emails remotely. Over the past 15 years, there has been a gradual expectation that if you have access to technology, that enables you to reply to messages instantly and makes you always contactable, even outside office hours. If senior managers are checking their emails outside normal work hours or during their holidays, then that sets an expectation for employees to do it too.
The disadvantages of never switching off
Increasing pressure to work outside usual hours, on holiday and even when sick, is causing more stress and mental health related issues in the workplace. Presenteeism, when the employee is at work in body but not in mind, is on the rise, as are musculoskeletal disorders and remote and digital bullying.
This expectation of always being “switched on” can also lead to the inability to concentrate, as well as having an impact on the person’s long-term mental health (Griffey, 2018).
Constant digital messages and calls make it harder for employees to concentrate to complete more in-depth tasks. This was confirmed in research undertaken by Dr Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at the University of London in 2005, which found that persistent interruptions left individuals feeling tired and sluggish as well as reducing productivity levels.
A study by Ohio University suggests that the typical “40-hour working week is not based on the ideal total hours humans can work productively” (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001). Using Sweden as an example, where the average employee works only about six hours a day, compared to the average minimum of eight hours a day, the lessening in hours resulted in a marked reduction in absenteeism and improved worker health in addition to improved productivity.
Germany has one of the highest productivity levels and employees are 27% more productive than UK staff who work more hours per year according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2019), despite having the shortest working hours compared with all OECD member countries.
Combating the “always on culture”
The reduction in working hours and ability to “switch off” may only be realised by the implementation of labour law, such as the Employment Bill.
This is already happening in some countries. As of 1 April 2021, employees in Ireland are entitled, under a new Code of Practice, to “switch off” from their jobs during non-working hours. This includes not having to respond to emails, telephone calls or other messages and the right not to be penalised for this.
In France, organisations are legally obliged to negotiate with employees, or their representatives, on their rights to switch off — and to implement monitoring processes to ensure this happens. Specifically, every French organisation with 50 or more employees must implement measures that regulate the use of electronic communication devices to maintain their employees’ work-life balance.
Similarly, in 2018, Spanish law introduced several digital rights which directly affected employees:
the right to privacy in the use of technological devices at work
the right to disconnect from work
the right to privacy against the use of sound and video surveillance and geolocation technology.
What can employers do?
All staff should have the right to regular time away from work, not only for their own wellbeing but also for the productivity of the organisation.
Examples for supporting the right to disconnect suggested by Prospect, and already being adopted by some organisations, include:
explicitly stating that employees are not expected to read or respond to emails, etc outside their normal working hours
ensuring that senior managers set expectations by not sending messages or emails outside their own working hours
setting rules about when work-related conference calls or online meetings can be held, to prevent the creep into commuting time
automatic blocking out in calendars or automatic statements in email systems to remind people of reasonable expectations of availability or responsiveness.
Berger, T, Frey, CB, Levin, G, Rao, S (2018). Uber Happy? Work and Wellbeing in the “Gig Economy”; presented at the 68th Economic Policy Panel Meeting
Berke. J (2018). “Japan is facing a “death by overwork” problem”, Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/japan-is-facing-a-death-by-overwork-problem-2018-3
Chen, L (2019). Jack Ma Again Endorses Extreme Overtime as Furor Rages On, Bloomberg,
De Sousa, E (2019). Computer says no: Workers waste millions of hours a year because of mediocre technology
Griffey, H (2018). The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world
OECD (2019). Hours worked
Partington, R (2018). Amazon raises minimum wage for US and UK employees
Prospect (2021). CIPD survey backs up Prospect call for a Right to Disconnecthttps://prospect.org.uk/news/cipd-survey-backs-up-prospect-call-for-a-right-to-disconnect/
Samuel, H (2018). British firm ordered to pay €60,000 by French court for breaching employee’s “right to disconnect” from work
US Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor. NLSY79 Users’ Guide (2001)
Wainwright, M (2005). Emails “pose threat to IQ”
Yu (2019). “996” Working Hour System: Why Does it Happen? PingWest,