Switching off: time to tackle ‘always on’ work culture

Many civil servants have embraced working from home during the pandemic, but it also means the lines between work and home life have been blurred. The government should set out rules around out of hours engagement – but employers don’t have to wait
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By Garry Graham

23 Apr 2021

The last 12 months have seen unprecedented changes in our country, to the way we live and to the way we work. Our frontline workers and public servants have worked tirelessly to adapt to the challenges the pandemic has presented. Few have done more and for as little recognition as the civil service and associated agencies in getting us through this as a nation. While they have been guiding us through, ensuring the machinery of government still functions, administrating the approval of vaccines, and designing the various economic rescue packages, many public servants have moved from predominantly office-based work to working from home.

A necessary feature of the lifting of Covid restrictions will be a re-evaluation of the extent to which we stick to our current working situation or return to pre-pandemic norms. Having demonstrated the ability to operate at a high level from home, many will want to stay as they are, while some will have hated every minute of it and be dying to get back into the office. In reality some kind of hybrid, part-home-part-office regime is the likely and desired outcome for many. This will mean an increase in home working from pre-pandemic levels.

Home working of course is not for everyone. Young workers in particular are keen for some form of office-based work. Nearly two-thirds (64%) according to Prospect polling would like their future working pattern to involve at least some office work, vs 54% overall. For these workers the benefits of an office environment are obvious to see – building social capital, having visibility and exposure to more senior leaders, the ability to learn and work alongside colleagues as well as the domestic position of cash poor younger workers sometimes not being conducive to purely home working.

The overall increase in home working brings its own problems however, and primary among these is the encroachment of work into people’s home lives. When you can receive emails on your phone at any time of day or night, the line between work and private life can be easily blurred. Indeed this is not simply a problem of home working, even when we are office-based we take our work home with us in the form of a laptop or smart phone.

Polling carried out by Opinium on behalf of Prospect found that 28% of public sector workers were finding it harder to switch off from work now than before the pandemic. 33% said their work-related mental health had deteriorated during the time as well. This may be to be expected given the gravity of the situation but when we asked why, 34% said it was because of a failure to switch off from work. This may not be a majority, but it points towards a sizeable minority who are really struggling with the current set up.

Technology was already blurring the line between work and our personal lives long before we’d even heard of lockdown. The always-on culture of checking emails and taking calls at home had become widespread and as our research shows, remote working has made drawing the line between work and home even more complicated.  

Unions have long called for flexible working, but that flexibility needs to work for workers, not just employers. The public sector on the whole performs well on providing flexible working but, as with anything, it could still do better. Ensuring new rules for flexibility also enables workers to switch off from work is essential for a positive sense of a ‘new normal’. 

Around the world, more countries are looking at how they get this digital balance between our private lives and work right. France became the first country to legislate on the Right to Disconnect in 2017 with a law that requires companies with over 50 employees to negotiate specific policies to help workers switch-off out-of-hours. Ireland became the latest country to join this movement, introducing a new code of practice that came into force in April to ensure workers have a right to switch-off from work outside of their normal hours.

In the UK, Prospect has been leading calls for the UK to catch up. The government have promised an Employment Bill in the Queens’ Speech next month which presents an opportunity for action, and we are also talking to individual employers in the public and private sectors about introducing their own policies regardless of national legislation.

Tech is transforming the way we are managed and work. The civil service and wider public sector have should take the opportunity to lead the way and demonstrate best practice in this area or risk being left behind by the pace of change.

Garry Graham is the deputy general secretary of the Prospect trade union

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