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Martha from Samuel Phillips Law on what we all need to know about the so-called ‘overtime epidemic’ – which is affecting more women than men

With more women than men working from home to shoulder the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities, we’re finding ourselves at an increasing risk of poor mental health. But could a legal Right to Disconnect help? Martha Craven, Employment Solicitor at Samuel Phillips Law, discusses

Written by Samuel Phillips Law
Published 25.09.2021

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The Covid-19 pandemic has a lot to answer for when we look at the world of work. 

Some things good, some not so positive. When we were forced into lockdown, a lot of us became more innovative than before and technology not only helped job retention on a global scale, but also encouraged many of us to collaborate with individuals and brands the world over for the very first time. 

But though undoubtedly useful, the slew of employees working remotely heralded in by the pandemic has also given rise to a significant deterioration in our collective mental health. And a large part of this is down to, what we’re hearing more and more being referred to as, the ‘overtime epidemic’. Or, in other words, our growing inability to ‘switch off’ from our jobs.   

According to a study by the Office for National Statistics [ONS], 1 in 3 people not placed on furlough were working more hours than usual last year. Similarly, a LinkedIn survey of 2,000 people found that those working from home were working an average of 28 additional hours every month.

Crucially, this is hitting women harder than men. Quite aside from the fact that more women work remotely than men – and that this is largely out of necessity, rather than choice – the vast majority of women are also shouldering more domestic responsibilities because of it.

We caught up with Martha Craven – Employment Solicitor at HLN’s Expert in Residence, Samuel Phillips Law – to find out what we really need to know about the ‘overtime epidemic’: how to recognise if we’re working too much, if there is any legal framework in place which gives us a ‘right to disconnect’ and why protecting our down-time is crucial to our mental health.

What is the ‘overtime epidemic’ we’ve started hearing about?

The term ‘overtime epidemic’ has been used to describe the fact that many people are working more evenings and weekends, due to an inability to ‘switch off’ from work.

This has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, as people have brought their offices (and work) home with them.

The ONS has reported that people who work from home worked an average of 6 hours unpaid overtime each week, which is nearly double the amount worked by those who never work from home. The rise in remote working is really having an impact.

Why do you think remote working has meant we are, on average, working more? 

There are a range of reasons why remote working leads to working more hours. Some reasons can be practical. For example, utilising time previously spent commuting to ‘log on’ and start working earlier. 

However, in my opinion, the main reason why remote working leads to working more hours is because of the blurred lines between ‘work’ and ‘home’. Previously, workers logged off and left their computers at work. Now, a person’s office is in their living room. It can be really tempting to ‘just check’ emails when your laptop is right there in front of you. Similarly, with no commute, lots of workers have less structure to their day, less time to decompress from work before going home and – crucially – no set finishing time. 

Another issue is online presenteeism. Some workers feel guilty about working from home, or that they must put in more hours to prove to their boss that they are being productive. This can lead to workers overcompensating by working lots of extra hours, or continuing to work from home when they feel unwell and should be resting on sick leave. 

The knock-on effect is that workers can become overworked and suffer from stress, anxiety and ’burn out’ – all of which negatively impact productivity in the long-term. 

The ‘overtime epidemic’ is particularly affecting women. Why is that? 

Firstly, according to the ILO, more women work from home than men, so this blurring of lines between ‘work’ and ‘home’ for remote workers will typically affect women more.  

Secondly, according to the ONS, women in the UK undertake 26 hours of ‘unpaid domestic labour’ – that is, cooking, cleaning and childcare – each week, which is significantly more than men.  

With schools, childcare and elderly care home facilities operating at a reduced capacity during the pandemic, women have undertaken even more ‘unpaid domestic labour’ due to increased caring responsibilities. 

So, during the pandemic, not only were women undertaking more paid work due to remote working, they were also undertaking more ‘unpaid domestic labour’. As a result, women were at a significantly greater risk of mental distress during the pandemic. In fact, research by a think tank called Autonomy found that 86% of working women with childcaring responsibilities experienced mental distress during April 2020, which is shocking.

There is growing concern that this could lead to more women choosing to work part-time or move out of work altogether. This ‘she-cession’ could erode recent progress made towards workplace gender equality. 

How might a Right to Disconnect work in practice? 

There is precedent for a Right to Disconnect among other countries. 

France is often cited as an example. In France, employers with over 50 employees must undertake mandatory negotiations with unions or works councils about things like equality and quality of life at work. Since 2017 – by law – these negotiations must also include discussion about the mechanisms used to regulate the use of digital tools, such as email. However, while negotiation for some employers is mandatory, there is no legal requirement for a binding agreement to be reached.  

A more recent example is the Republic of Ireland, which announced a new Code of Practice dealing with the Right to Disconnect in April 2021. Under this Code of Practice, employees who are asked regularly to work outside agreed hours are able to refer the matter to the Workplace Relations Commission. 

A report by Autonomy suggests that the Right to Disconnect could be added into the Employment Rights Act 1996, as an automatic right with employees able to ‘opt-out’ if they chose to do so. This is similar to the current working time legislation which stipulates a maximum working week of 48 hours, but which allows workers to opt-out if they wish to work more hours. 

What are the potential difficulties in enforcing such legislation? 

Unfortunately, in England and Wales, it’s largely up to individual workers to enforce their rights via the Employment Tribunal system, and workers are often wary of enforcing such rights directly against their employer. 

This means that even if legislation was put in place which gave workers the Right to Disconnect, it may not be regularly enforced. 

How likely is it that the UK implements a legal Right to Disconnect? 

Angela Raynor (MP and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party) has stated that: ‘alongside the right to flexible working, there must be a right to disconnect’. However, the current Conservative Government has not expressed such strong support for a Right to Disconnect, although it has created a flexible working taskforce to look at the issues around working from home that have arisen from the pandemic.

I doubt we will see a Right to Disconnect enshrined in law anytime soon. 

Could any other legislation come into play? 

In the short-term, it’s more likely that businesses will lead the way regarding flexible working, rather than waiting for the law to change. This is because more and more workers are expecting flexible working options as standard, meaning employers looking to recruit the best candidates need to consider implementing more flexible working options. Equally, employers wishing to retain the best talent need to implement robust remote working processes to help protect employee wellbeing and reduce the risk of ‘burnout’. 

Having said that, the pandemic has sparked debate within the current Government about the adequacy of the current provisions for flexible working more generally, and this has already led to some positive changes. For example, one of the proposals put forward in a consultation by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy [BEIS] was the option to give employees the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment – rather than after waiting 26 weeks.

Similarly, calls to investigate the feasibility of a 4-day working week have been renewed and reinvigorated, and the Scottish Government has confirmed it is considering trialling a 4-day working week as part of a pilot scheme. 

 

If you’d like to find out more about the legalities surrounding remote working and the Right to Disconnect, Samuel Phillips can offer initial advice in the strictest of confidence. For more information, visit their website or Facebook page or call the firm on 0191 232 8451.

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