When Work is Work and Home is the Right to Disconnect

Mohammed Ilyas

During the early 1980s, when computers started becoming a common feature in offices and workplaces, we were sold a narrative. It went along the lines that this new-fangled technology would create much more leisure time and leisure opportunities for people.

In reality, that equated to unemployment. After all, if a machine can do ten people’s work in a fraction of the time, you probably need just one person to operate it, so goodbye to the other 9.

It also marked a shift in what’s known as work-life balance. Whereas previously a 9am-5pm shift, for example, really meant finishing work at 5pm (with some exceptions) and enjoying your evening free from the pressures or worries of work, the advent of the mobile phone and latterly the smart phone along with other devices has shattered that freedom.

We are now in a situation where, for many people, the working day has effectively been extended with work-related communications from colleagues and managers at times when we’re supposedly relaxing.

A recent study by the University of the West of England said wider access to Wi-Fi on trains and the spread of mobiles had extended the working day, with commuters so regularly using travel time for work emails that their journeys should be counted as part of the working day.

Technology in these scenarios is a double-edged sword – it gives flexibility but also demands more. In other words, your working day is a lot longer than perhaps it should be.

There are also issues surrounding the impact on physical and mental well-being, a situation that even the business world recognises could adversely affect employers and employees.

“This increasing flexibility has the potential to radically shift the work-life balance for the better – but it also leaves the door open to stress and lower productivity,” said Jamie Kerr, of the Institute of Directors.

We may no longer clock in and clock out of work, but there needs to be an all-round common sense approach, so people are allowed to enjoy a healthy work-life balance. For instance, do you really need to send a work-related email to a colleague at 8 pm if it’s not urgent or can wait until the following day (as it usually can)?

Will said colleagues ignore it until they’re back at work unless they feel obliged to read it there and then (and then fret throughout the night about its contents?)

Or will they curse you for interrupting their evening meal with the family, their playtime with the kids or their viewing of Breaking Bad re-runs just as they’re on the final few episodes of the final season?

Perhaps it’s time we followed the example of our continental cousins – let’s do it before Brexit please – and implemented the ‘right to disconnect’.

In France, the El Khomri law means companies with more than 50 employees have to include this right (while being allowed to choose the most practical way to implement it), and in Germany companies like VW and BMW long ago introduced measures limiting or banning out-of-hours work messaging.

This was done in recognition of protecting employees’ work-life balance, preventing undue stress and, consequently, decreasing productivity. If it’s a good business sense, then these global firms have a pretty good grasp of that, and maybe we should follow suit.

Okay, back to Breaking Bad!

Mohammed Ilyas is the Press & Publicity manager for the charity Islamic Help. The views expressed in this column are his personal opinions.

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