Right to switch off: UK workers under pressure
We’ve surveyed 2,000 UK employees around the pressure they feel under to be contactable by colleagues outside of working hours, or responding to work emails, as well as how easily they are able to ‘switch off’ during time off.
Owing to our busy working lives, many of us are guilty of ‘just checking in’ outside of our contracted working hours, but with a recent report revealing that the cost to employers of poor mental health amongst their workforce totalled around £56billion in 2020-2021¹, the need to fully switch off and benefit from a proper break from work has never been more essential.
Despite this, it seems that many UK workers are still feeling the pressure to read and even respond to workplace emails and correspondence out of hours, leaving them struggling to switch off and enjoy the downtime properly, so we spoke with 2,000 UK based employees to learn more.
Our survey indicated that a staggering 3.5 million UK workers² feel ‘very pressured’ to check their work emails and other job-related correspondence outside of their contracted working hours. In fact, the research suggests that a further 6.5 million also feel ‘some pressure’ to do so. In total, 67% of the workers we spoke to admitted they felt under some pressure to check emails when not in work.
Our findings also showed that one in seven men (14%) admit to feeling ‘very pressured’ to check emails when out of office, compared to just one in ten women (10%).
Through examining the regional data, we learnt that despite the city’s average salary (£33,063) falling 4.79% below the UK’s national average (£34,730)³, the Northern Irish city of Belfast was found to have the most employees (25%) that feel ‘very pressured’ to check their work emails outside of their working hours.
Other cities that ranked highly on the list included Manchester (21%), Edinburgh (19%), Bristol (17%), and Birmingham (15%), which all have high percentages of employees who ‘feel very pressured’ to check their emails when not working, according to the findings.
|UK City||% Of employees that feel ‘very pressured’ to check work emails when OOO|
In comparison, the south Yorkshire city of Sheffield was found to boast the biggest percentage of employees that ‘feel no pressure’ to check work emails when “not in the office” (55%). This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that average salaries in the city (£31,653) fall 8.85% below the national average.
Other cities scoring highly alongside the steel city include Edinburgh (44%), Liverpool (43%), Southampton (42%), and Cardiff (41%).
|UK City||% Of employees that feel ‘no pressure’ to check work emails when OOO|
The data also showed us that employees working in Norwich were found to put the most pressure on themselves to check and respond to emails when not in work, i.e., the pressure does not come from their workplace or manager, with one in nine (11%) admitting to being guilty of this trait.
The right to ‘switch off’
With the pressures being felt by UK employees, whether stemming from the workplace or from themselves, the ability to truly switch off when not in work is something that many are likely to struggle with. In fact, according to our findings, it takes UK employees an average of 5.7 days to truly switch off outside of work.
Worryingly, with typical holidays abroad for Brits lasting just 8.7 days on average⁴, the time spent being able to relax and unwind significantly reduces to just 3 days on average, and even worse, to none at all when you consider that UK adults book a break lasting just 3.3 days on average when holidaying on home soil.
Luckily, we learnt that a third of those surveyed (34%) can switch off immediately when not at work, however comparatively one in seven admit they’re never able to do so (14%).
Interestingly, we found that those who show the most restraint regarding checking work emails outside of working hours via their personal devices (e.g., phone, laptop, tablet, etc.), were able to switch off the most easily (42%). Whilst, on average, a quarter of those who check their personal tech devices to check their work emails every time they use them are never able to switch off (25%).
This backs up the notion that employees who constantly check their work emails never truly switch off, and enforces the importance of allowing yourself a regular break from work and the comms that come along with it, as an essential step in being able to relax properly.
Who finds switching off the hardest?
We also looked into how people working within different job roles found the concept of switching off, and found that the average time taken for people in CEO or business owner type roles to switch off completely is higher than the average UK adult, at just over a week (7.5 days). This leaves them with just over a day for R&R on an average holiday abroad before they head back to their place of work. A fifth even told us that they are ‘unable to ever switch off’ (21%).
On the flip side, almost half of those undertaking administrator and assistant roles (46%) say they ‘don’t feel pressured’ to check emails during non-working hours and are also the group able to switch off the quickest, taking just 3.8 days on average to do so.
Finally, freelancers were most likely to put the pressure on themselves to check job-related emails when not in work, then any other role (23%). The group were found to take 6.6 days on average to truly switch off and relax, leaving less than a day to do so when holidaying outside of the UK.
Where do we check our work emails?
Sadly, it seems no time is sacred amongst the nation’s hard-working employees, with three quarters (76%) checking their work emails from their personal devices at least once a day whether sick from work, caring for unwell loved ones, and even when attending an appointment at the doctors or dentists.
Equally, three quarters (76%) also admitted to checking workplace correspondence over the break for Christmas and other religious ceremonies, and over weekends, evenings, early mornings.
What can be done to help?
We chatted to UK employees around their eagerness to follow in France’s footsteps and introduce similar employee right ‘to switch off’ laws here in the UK. The legislation, which was introduced in France back in 2017, bans employers from expecting their employees to engage in communications, such as emails outside of working hours.
Maintaining a healthy work life balance has been a key area of discussion for many workers and businesses in light of the changes to working life brought about by the pandemic, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that a substantial two thirds (66%) of UK workers said they would be happy to follow France’s lead here and would support a law being introduced in the UK.
Almost ten percent more women than men support the introduction of this law (70% vs. 62%).
Those most in support of bringing in a law similar to that in place in France are employees within executive roles (72%). However, despite half of business leaders such as CEOs agreeing with this sentiment (50%), more than a third would still vote against introducing it (36%). One in seven remain unsure (14%).
As of 21.8.2022, a petition from Megaphone.org.uk calling for the government to introduce a “right to disconnect” for all UK workers in the new employment bill, has gained 16,828 signatures⁴.
Which countries are ahead of the game?
France may have been the first country to adopt said laws around the right to disconnect and switch off, but since then, several countries have also followed suit. So, who’s joining France in promoting this healthy working culture for their employees:
- Philippines – January 2017
- Italy – 2017
- Spain – 2018
- Belgium – 2018
- Slovakia – Feb 2021
- Ireland – April 2021
- Portugal – January 2022
Additionally, whilst there are no legal obligations in place for businesses in Germany relating to the right to disconnect, many German companies have actually taken it upon themselves to implement policies alluding to the same messaging.
And in Canada, within the Province of Ontario, in 2021 Bill 27, Working for Workers Act 2021 was passed which states some employers to define their expectations around disconnecting from work.
It’s worth noting that there are various stipulations around the laws adopted by each of the countries, and so aspects such as what the law has been titled, how much rest and downtime is recommended, and the size of business the rules apply to may differ somewhat depending on the location.
On the other side of the coin, a study from Dr Emma Russell, a senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex Business School⁵, put forward the opposing argument that whilst for some, imposing a ban of this ilk may be the welcome break they need, for others, banning them from reading their emails outside of office hours could actually be detrimental to their mental health.
When speaking with the BBC, Dr Russell, said that despite the good intentions when introducing policies that limit email use, a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided. She went on to explain that people need to deal with emails in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel like they are not being overwhelmed by their workload.
Tips to help you and your employees get some much-needed downtime
While the flexibility of WFH may offer a plethora of perks to those who have embraced it, with significant numbers of employees now working from home full-time or at least part-time within a hybrid role, it is becoming increasingly more challenging to separate your home life from your working life. As such, setting yourself some strict boundaries when it comes to work has never been more key.
Government legislation states that as an employer you have the same health and safety responsibilities for your workers whether they work at home or in a workplace, which includes helping your staff to prevent stress, burnout, and other mental health issues, all of which can stem from not taking enough time outside of work to rest properly⁶.
So, whether you’re an employer looking for simple ways to encourage your staff to make time for some well-earned rest after the working day is done, or you’re simply looking for a few pointers on how to form these good habits for yourself, we’ve pulled together some tips to help get you to carve out some well-earned downtime:
1. Set a specific time to ‘clock off’ each day – and stick to it!
Whilst anyone working in a busy environment will have days where they may have to work a few extra hours here or there, it’s imperative that this doesn’t become a regular occurrence. By encouraging staff to set and work to a schedule, and not to revisit workplace correspondence outside of working hours, over time a good routine will be formed whereby your employees first instinct isn’t to reach for a phone or laptop and “just check in” outside of working hours.
2. Where possible, use work only phones
By providing your staff with work-only technology such as a phone or laptop, it becomes much easier to draw a firm line separating a busy working life from a personal one. And whilst it may not be feasible for all companies to offer this to staff, doing so can make a huge difference in being able to close the door on your work life at the end of the day.
3. Encourage them to uninstall work-related apps
If this is not possible, try asking your employees if they will uninstall work-related apps on their personal phone. This takes away the temptation to check in on work emails unnecessarily outside of work, something which would benefit the 76% of people from our survey who find themself doing so on every occasion.
4. Turn off push notifications
If uninstalling apps completely is not feasible, you may want to consider encouraging staff to at least turn off push notifications for apps related to the workplace. They may still wish to continue to check emails when not in work from time to time, but by turning off notifications it will lead them not to think about it quite as often as they won’t immediately be alerted to them. This will help to minimalise disruptions to their personal life, and in turn, will help to break the habit of reading and responding to emails as soon as they land.
5. Stop sending emails after 5pm
One simple but extremely effective method is to limit the emails being sent for work to specific hours of the day. The reason this tactic is so effective is due to the roll-on effects it can have on other colleagues. By stopping sending emails past 5pm, it gives others less of a reason to respond into the evening, thus eventually breaking the cycle.
Tips to help you and your employees get some much-needed downtime
We can see from our survey that UK workers are more than putting in the time at work, and while this is applaudable, the roll-on effects it has on your personal life and ability to relax once the working day is done are also very apparent.
By encouraging healthy working habits amongst your employees or colleagues, you can help to create a good work-life balance across the board, allowing them to carve out time with the specific intention of switching off.
And whilst it may be a tricky set of habits to break, by setting yourself these goals and sticking to them, the ability to switch off should certainly come more easily in the long run. Similarly, encouraging your employees to do so will enable them to take some proper time out of the working environment to unwind and decompress, which in turn could help boost morale and productivity amongst the team.
Sources & Methodology
- A survey of 2,000 UK workers, correct as of August 2022
- ¹ Deloitte press release
- ² 29.6 million people are employed within the UK, according to the most recent data from ONS (correct as of July 2022) UK Labour market survey – And was calculated by looking at the cities where highest percentage of employees answered that they ‘feel no pressure’ to check their work emails outside of working hours/when on holiday / calculated by looking at the cities where highest percentage of employees answered that they ‘feel very pressured’ to check their work emails outside of working hours/when on holiday
- ³ https://www.adzuna.co.uk/
- ⁴ Most recent data available (2019) https://www.nimblefins.co.uk/cheap-travel-insurance/UK-holiday-statistics-domestic-abroad#triplength
- ⁵ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-50073107
- ⁶ https://www.hse.gov.uk/home-working/worker/index.htm
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