The right to disconnect? Why the UK comms industry can't switch off

New French legislation dubbed the 'right to disconnect' aims to encourage a better work-life balance, but it wouldn't work in the UK communications industry.

We're all guilty. We've not so long as put our phone down that we're picking it back up again.

Whether it’s checking emails, Facebook feeds, Instagram or snaps, the temptation to be connected is just too great.

And in burnout Britain, where we’re famed for working the longest hours in the European Union, you’d be forgiven for thinking being ‘always on’ is commendable.

But is it?

When work spills into our downtime, research is increasingly showing it causes stress and impacts our health.

A study of 24,000 workers across the European Union revealed a correlation between after-hours work contact and higher rates of health issues, yet our desire to be connected just gets stronger.

On the continent, the opposite is true.

In January, French legislation dubbed the ‘right to disconnect’ came into effect to encourage a better work-life balance for workers, with the focus on restricting employees responding to out-of-hours, work-related emails and messages.

But could this work in the UK and in particular the communications industry?

I say "no".

Employee wellbeing is clearly crucial, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think the right to be disconnected can find a comfortable home in our industry.

It’s easy to say you’re implementing a company-wide rule where staff don’t reply to emails after 7pm, but in reality it’s not this hard and fast.

If you’re agency side, a client may have a crisis, you may be working with clients in different time zones and if you’re running an in-house comms team, press office and the management team bring its own demands at all times of day and night.

Do I think our staff should be working at night and weekends? No, I don’t.

Do I think our staff should reply to an email if it is urgent, it can’t wait till the next day or Monday and could cause a problem if they didn’t? Yes, I do.

And I think this is the crux of the issue. Flexibility.

Imposing rules around when you can and can’t reply to emails or messages would alienate those who need to work flexibly.

For working mums and dads, employer flexibility is crucial.

Parents leave to do the school run but want to pick up work again in the evening: who are we to say they can’t have the best of both – a good career and a family.

Last year, our video producer started a novelty cards business in his spare time.

Had we operated an outdated agency model where our team work late hours, this wouldn’t have been possible for him.

His inventive video wedding proposal, which was picked up by an American talk show and UK media (organically, I should add), would likely not have happened either, because having downtime is crucial to creativity.

We can have staff who deliver great work, keep our clients happy without being connected to work around the clock.

Nail the culture and the ‘Right to Disconnect’’ becomes irrelevant, doesn’t it?

Sharon Flaherty is managing director of BrandContent


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