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What is a right to disconnect policy? (Plus, a free policy template)

Being contactable at all hours is contributing to anxiety and burnout: here’s how a right to disconnect policy can help

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Why do we need a right to disconnect?So, what does the right to disconnect mean exactly?A right to disconnect policy example from Spill5 ways to help your team disconnect from work

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  • Communicating outside of regular working hours increases cognitive and emotional overload, which can lead to burnout and anxiety.
  • The 'right to disconnect' first originated in France in 2017 and has since been employed by Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Ontario.
  • In the UK, 67% of workers take part in work-related communications outside their official working hours but the right to disconnect is not yet a legal requirement.
  • The right to disconnect allows employees to completely switch off from work outside normal working hours.
  • A right to disconnect policy outlines company-wide rules that help workers disconnect: scroll to download Spill's entire right to disconnect policy to help your team disconnect from work each day.

The flexible hours that come with remote and hybrid work are great — letting the plumber in! Cooking an actual non-Pret meal for lunch! The occasional lie-in! — but the data show that they invariably mean more hours. A recent study found that the average working day increased by 48 minutes since the start of the pandemic. That's a lot.

After seeing how remote and hybrid work can so easily seep into evenings and weekends — both in terms of actual work and 'mental real estate' — we launched an internal 'Right to Disconnect' Policy at Spill. Here’s what that means and how you can implement one for your own team.

Why do we need a right to disconnect?

Thanks to smartphones and other digital devices, we’re now contactable 24/7. Throw remote working into the mix and what do you get? Well, in addition to longer working hours, employees are increasingly feeling like they have to be contactable and responsive — at all times.  

Our communication boundaries haven’t yet caught up now that we work predominantly with our brains rather than toiling in the fields. And so, we trespass on our mental ‘downtime’. Think about it: when a colleague sends us a Slack message at 9pm asking for a few numbers or some last minute slides, we often do it without thinking twice.

In fact, one study (in French) shows that communicating (or being contactable) out of regular working hours increases cognitive and emotional overload, which can lead to burnout and anxiety. Essentially, the effect on our brains is very similar to actual work. 

💡 If you're thinking about work, you're working. If you're messaging about work, you're working. If at any moment you could be pulled into work, you're working.

‍Having a job is like going to the gym: when it comes to achieving your goals, recovery time is as important as the actual work itself. A Stanford study showed that the average person isn't productive above 50-55 hours a week anyway, as mental fatigue sets in. In order to bring our A-game to work tomorrow, we need enough time to properly wind down and recharge tonight. That's why the EU Working Time Directive requires people to have at least 11 hours of non-work time in every 24-hour period.

The ‘right to disconnect’ first originated in France, after an ambulance driver was dismissed when he failed to answer his employer’s phone calls outside his working hours (it was later ruled that this couldn't be considered as misconduct after all). Less than a decade later, in 2017, France introduced the world’s first right to disconnect policy to protect workers from being penalised for ignoring out-of-hours messages. Several European countries have gone on to implement their own policy, including Italy, Spain and Ireland, and in 2021, Ontario followed suit. 

Here in the UK, the right to disconnect is still not a legal requirement. But with 67% of UK workers taking part in work-related communications outside their official working hours, it's unsurprising that 60% of UK adults support the legal introduction of such a policy.

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Download our Right to Disconnect policy template (in full)

Use this policy template to define proper communication boundaries and help your employees enact their right to disconnect from work

So, what does the right to disconnect mean exactly?

A right to disconnect allows employees to completely disconnect from work outside of normal working hours. The policy is used as a way to help employees switch off after work and reduce working out of hours. 

A right to disconnect allows employees to completely disconnect from work outside of normal working hours.

What this means exactly will look different in every company but it's important to remember the right to disconnect is an individual right, not a company mandate. However, what the company does mandate is that no one should take away another person's right to disconnect.

‍At Spill, everyone has the right to work whenever (and however much) they want. But everyone also has the right to not be disturbed or asked to work outside of reasonable hours, unless it's an emergency (we'll define an emergency later on).

Working late in the evening because you want to is very different from working because you feel like you have to. This distinction is key, and the latter is what this policy aims to prevent.

💡 Doing individual work out-of-hours is completely fine — as long as you're not doing it in a way that asks or encourages other people to work out-of-hours too.

At Spill, we define 'reasonable hours' as 8am to 7pm. That definitely doesn't mean you're expected to work all of those hours; it just means that we deem those reasonable hours to be contacted in. Some people like to start earlier, others prefer to keep working a bit later.

‍Our motto: work really hard, and then really switch off.

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A right to disconnect policy example from Spill

At Spill, we introduced a right to disconnect policy as part of our wider employee mental wellbeing. Designed to give everyone the peace of mind that they can (and should!) switch off each day, our policy is made up of company-wide rules that everyone agrees to as part of their Spill contract. 

If you’re thinking of introducing a right to disconnect policy of your own, here are the rules we follow at Spill. 

1) Use Slack's 'schedule for later' feature for any Slack messages or posts that are out of reasonable hours

Seeing people posting on Slack outside of hours encourages 'work FOMO' and makes everyone feel like they need to be online and responsive.

2) Use Gmail's 'schedule send' feature for any emails that are out of reasonable hours

This includes both internal and external emails. We have a responsibility not to create harmful standards for people in the wider Spill network too: customers, investors, etc.

3) Don't call (or video call) a colleague out of reasonable hours‍

Unless they've specifically told you that you can on that day for a specific reason or regarding a particular project. Just send a scheduled message for first thing tomorrow morning instead.

4) Don't use WhatsApp for work-related messages, at any time 

‍Once you start, it becomes easier for work-WhatsApping to continue outside of reasonable hours. Better not to go down that slippery slope: keep WhatsApp for non-work fun chat.

5) Don't log onto Slack or read messages outside of reasonable hours if you don't want to

‍Part of the responsibility lies with us as individuals to set good boundaries for ourselves. For more information on how to improve your boundary-setting, see the resources section below.

6) Don't talk about working outside of reasonable hours

‍Throwaway comments about working until midnight or working on a Sunday may seem harmless, but over time they affect expectations, and expectations become culture. It makes sense: you've slaved away for hours, and you want the emotional reward of a colleague saying "well done". But that, conversely, shows you've failed the test of whether you were working because you really wanted to or whether you felt you had to: if you truly want to work outside reasonable hours, you don't need the validation for it afterwards. Instead of saying "I stayed up until 10pm last night finishing that presentation", just say "I finished that presentation".

‍*For all the above, the exception is if the situation is an emergency. An emergency at Spill refers to something that, if left unaddressed before the next working day, might bring about harm (actual or reputational) to a Spill user, Spill client company, Spill employee, Spill therapist, or Spill itself.

Remember: someone else's urgency is not your emergency!*

5 ways to help your team disconnect from work

‍In addition to the contractual rules, we’ve also introduced other company-wide initiatives. They’re not mandatory, but if our team wants to disconnect from work communication, they can. 

🥑 Change the emoji in your Slack status when you're not working

This is an idea we got from one of the awesome companies we work with, Hedgehog Lab. If you're on a run, set your status to a running emoji. If you're walking the dog, pick the dog emoji. If you're taking a lunch break, use the avocado emoji. This does two things: makes sure people don't disturb you, and also normalises the idea of taking breaks during the day by making them more visible.

❌ Take part in 'Deep Work Wednesdays'

‍We don't only need to disconnect from work communication to rest: sometimes we need it to get actual work done. We have an optional initiative at Spill called 'Deep Work Wednesdays', where people block out their calendar, turn off Slack notifications and put an email out-of-office on for the whole of Wednesday. It's a chance to take a break from notifications and enjoy getting into some uninterrupted 'flow state' work.

🚶‍♂️Take part in 'Let Them Go Walking'

‍Once a month, on the day where the temperature is highest above the historical average for that time of year, you'll receive an 45min invite in your diary from Spill that says 'LTGW'. The title is a nod to the Patagonia founder's philosophy of 'Let Them Go Surfing': he believed that when the surf was good, Patagonia employees should be able to clock off and go to the beach. Having some time to go on a little walk is our British equivalent.

💬 Go to your end-of-day team meeting

As well as discussing progress and problems, one of the key questions asked in end-of-day team meetings is "what's blocking people from finishing work for the day now?". Whether that's postponing non-urgent work until tomorrow, sharing workload, or thinking of an easier way to solve a problem, the aim is to help everyone close their laptops on time.

🤝 Take part in team-wide trust-building exercises

‍We usually do these once every term, during planning week. They usually involve some form of team or paired conversation exercise where we try to open up, show vulnerability and connect with each other. Why is this important? Because the more interpersonal trust we have, the more secure we feel in ourselves within the team, and the less likely we are to seek the extra emotional assurance that comes from working evenings and weekends. Happy times.

At Spill, we’re working hard to build a company culture we’re not only proud of, but which also lets our employees feel productive, happy and ready to work.

We want as many companies as possible to join us in standing up for their employees' right to disconnect. That's why we're making this policy open source: feel free to copy or amend all or any part of it.
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Download our ‘Right to Disconnect’ policy template (in full)

After seeing how remote and hybrid work can so easily seep into evenings and weekends — both in terms of actual work and 'mental real estate' — we launched an internal 'Right to Disconnect' Policy. Here it is in full.

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