We’re All Working, All the Time

Workers deserve the right to disconnect.

by Polly Smythe

17 September 2021

A grey short-haired cat sitting on a white duvet stares into a laptop, against a blue curtain background
Photocreo Bednarek/Adobe Stock

As soon as I was hired for my last job, a minimum-wage retail assistant role, I was added to the work WhatsApp. I quickly saw that my boss would bombard the chat at all hours, asking staff to locate customer orders, or explain emails they’d sent weeks ago. Once, when none of us replied to a Saturday late-night message, she demanded to know what we could possibly – and legally – have been doing during lockdown that meant we hadn’t responded.

It’s situations like these that the thinktank Autonomy addresses in its recent report, ‘The Right to Disconnect’. In it, Phil Jones and Nick Bano look at what they term “hidden overtime”, the constant work expected of us in our “always-on” culture, but which is not contractually recognised by employers, and therefore unpaid. Jones and Bano calculate that this work – checking our phones under the table at the pub, flitting between tabs over dinner, skimming our emails before bed – is worth £32.7bn to employers each year.

This was not how things were supposed to go. In Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes speculated that technological advancement would soon precipitate a 15-hour workweek, and eventually do away with the need for human labour altogether. Yet the consequence of our hyper-connected lives has not been a reduction but an increase in hours. And, the number of hours that employees work continued to increase even during the global pandemic, where the normal workload had to be undertaken alongside the supervision of children’s online learning, the strains of social isolation, and anxieties around the health of loved ones. Analysing the emails and meetings of 3.1 million people in 16 global cities over the pandemic, a Harvard study found the average workday had increased by 48.5 minutes early in the crisis.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The uncoupling of work from the office – something that long preceded the pandemic, but has been accelerated by it – has meant work could be done at any time and from any location. Given that we could be working at any moment – particularly during a lockdown when, in theory, there is little else to do – it is expected that we should be.

In his short Verso polemic 24/7, Jonathan Crary theorises that the relentless annexation of time previously used for hobbies and socialising represents not merely the encroachment of work into non-work time, but the alignment “of lived temporalities with market needs”. Zero-hours contracts, which redistribute our time for maximum profitability, are perhaps the best-known example of this.

For Crary, much as devices enter “sleep mode”, a state of infinite low-power readiness, the problem is not that workers aren’t switching off, but that the lack of distinction between work and home, or day and night, represents the end of an on/off logic: “Nothing is ever fundamentally ‘off’ and there is never an actual state of rest.”

Much of this out-of-hours work is being undertaken by women, forced to squeeze in their unpaid duties around the rigid demands of their paid ones. One pandemic study found that women are 43% more likely to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week than men. Home-based work is largely (although not exclusively) undertaken by women, who balance the paid work of formal employment with the unpaid work of domestic chores. For women, the demands of family life and the realities of caregiving require interspersing the rhythms of breakfasts and bath-time with snatches of work once children are in bed. Put another way, the working patterns created by an always-on culture don’t make time for childcare, care for elderly relations, and housework, meaning women are more likely to catch up on work outside of their official working hours.

While the pandemic means bosses haven’t been able to peek into our office cubicles, this doesn’t mean workers have escaped their managerial scrutiny. Workplace surveillance – again, nothing new – has boomed during the past 18 months. Microsoft 365’s software calculates productivity scores based on the number of emails sent, or always-running video-conference software that takes webcam pictures every few minutes.

The health effects of this incursion of work life into personal life are – unsurprisingly – severe. A joint World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation study linked long working hours with an increased risk of strokes and cardiovascular disease. Overwork has also been linked to psychological distress and mental health issues. Autonomy pinpoint sleeplessness and fatigue as adverse consequences of long hours – reminding me of a friend’s father, who would set a nightly 2am alarm to check his emails.

What is to be done about work without end? Much like Autonomy’s work on the introduction of the four-day week, Jones and Bano’s report seeks practical ways to address the spillage of work into our leisure time and restore a “healthy work-life balance”. Since what it means to disconnect will mean different things in different sectors, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach, they say. Individual employers have trialled various policies: the registration of time spent working outside the normal working day, allotted days without emails, or the agreement of fixed “times of reachability”.

The one thing that is uniform across all sectors, Jones and Bano recognise, is that employers can’t be trusted to do right by their employees. This means that the right to disconnect must, they argue, be enshrined in law. Even then, they say, employees – at least in the UK – are vulnerable.

In the UK, the responsibility falls on the worker to enforce their own employment rights by taking cases tribunals. This system, combined with a “total absence of effective governmental oversight” in the form of labour inspection, means that technically having a right doesn’t mean you’ll be afforded it in practice. Jones and Bano cite the Working Time Directive, which despite its existence, is frequently waived by workers as a matter of course.

Jones and Bano are clear, too, that the success of any enforcement mechanism is bound up with emboldening the trade union movement, or improving governmental monitoring.

In a system where it falls to individual workers to protect their own rights, and a weak governmental intervention, the role of trade unions is critical in achieving a meaningful right to disconnect. Across Europe, governments – under pressure from unions – are beginning to recognise this, and to protect workers’ right to disconnect where employers won’t. In an effort to highlight the issue, the Trade Union Congress run an annual ‘Work Your Proper Hours Day’. Last year, trade union Prospect launched their own campaign on the right to disconnect, setting out how unions can safeguard workers’ work-life boundaries.

Governments are beginning to take heed. In October, the Canadian government formed a Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee, which features the voices of both employers and unions, who meet in order to develop recommendations around protecting non-work hours for the government. Then in January, the European parliament voted to call on the European Commission to propose a new law enabling workers to disconnect outside of working hours. In April, Ireland bit the bullet, granting workers the “right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours.”

For their part, Jones and Bano argue that the right to disconnect should be introduced through two amendments to the Employment Rights Act 1996. Such amendments, they argue, would ensure “all employees feel free to switch off from any work-related electronic communications […] outside of normal work hours.” They suggest it be an opt-out legal requirement, meaning any employer who argued they needed to contact their employees outside of contracted hours would have to make a convincing case for why.

The elation at quitting my old job was in large part from removing myself from the work WhatsApp. I’m now self-employed, and while I sleep better knowing my boss won’t message me in the middle of the night, I’m not off the hook entirely. Since leaving employment, I’ve been surprised at how I still check work emails on a Sunday morning, out of habit, perhaps, or my own desire for continuous productivity. With no one to switch me on and off, I remain perpetually on standby.

Polly Smythe is a freelance writer focusing on work.

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