‘Always on’ communications: stressful but hard to police

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

In France a law was passed in January giving workers a “droit à la déconnexion”, a right to disconnect from email and phone contact outside working hours.

Companies with more than 50 employees must set out the hours when they do not expect employees to send or answer emails. The justification for the law is that workers were not being paid fairly for the unofficial overtime the evening and weekend correspondence involved.

France has a history of radical labour regulation: it introduced a statutory 35-hour working week in 2000. But, like King Canute, it also has a history of trying to control the uncontrollable. Repeated government attempts to stop thousands of English words such as “networking”, “weekend” and “hashtag” infiltrating the French language have had little effect outside official documents.

Nevertheless, the idea of restricting out-of-hours communication has some merit. In a society where the third most common cause of sickness absence is work-related stress, we cannot claim to be concerned about employee health and wellbeing and ignore the effects of “always-on” technology on those who are issued with it.

Senior managers in many businesses see themselves as permanently on call and that is spreading through white-collar occupations. Research in the US found that 63% of workers issued with Blackberrys and company mobiles felt they increased demands that they work more hours, and 30% felt as though those demands had increased “a lot”.

Many organisations have long turned a blind eye to high levels of unofficial overtime among office-based employees but intruding into home life introduces another level of stress.

It brings extra ergonomic hazards, too. At the Health and Wellbeing at Work conference (March 2017) in Birmingham, consultant Ed Milnes warned of “mission creep” among employees using mobile display screen equipment, including phones and tablets, which could lead to long hours reading and writing on unsuitable screens, compounded by personal use, exacerbating musculoskeletal problems. Milnes came back to the idea, enshrined in the French law, of limiting the hours employees were allowed to send and reply to work emails.

But blanket approaches are not always popular with employees. In a later session at the Birmingham conference, Professor Craig Jackson of Birmingham City University said that staff had rebelled when car maker VW agreed with German unions to reset its servers so they would not send employee emails to mobiles outside of working hours.

Portable DSE in general and smartphones in particular are an example of a technology that became ubiquitous before we had the protocols for their healthy use. Now we need to catch up.

Imposing rules about use of portable technology is unlikely to be the answer. As with most workplace initiatives, visible leadership – discouraging executives from sending emails at 10pm – and gaining employee consent are most likely to produce a sustainable answer.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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