Advice by Peninsula Employment Law Director Alan Price
It is becoming increasingly common for staff to check emails and take work related calls outside of paid working hours. Employers often see this as a sign of an employee’s commitment to their organisation, with many even coming to expect this as a prerequisite for those in senior roles. However, employers should understand that this action is also an example of leavism and can result in negative employee morale alongside potential tribunal claims if the time spent working exceeds current regulations. In Ireland, a business executive was awarded €7,500 after being required to deal with out-of-hours work emails, including some after midnight, that led to work in excess of 48 hours a week. Therefore business owners should work to resolve any issues that prevent employees from switching off outside of working hours.
Within the law, workers are entitled to rest periods and time away from work in order to ensure their well-being and influence greater productivity. As outlined in the Working Time Regulations 1998, staff members should not be required to work more than 48 hours per week on average and, as an extension, must sign an opt-out agreement if they wish to do so. Therefore, whilst there are no rules specifically prohibiting employees from responding to business queries from home, provided they do not exceed this 48-hour limit, employers would be wise to consider the detrimental effect that this may have on their workforce.
Although it may initially seem beneficial that the queries are being processed despite the employee not being in the office this can actually cause more issues for a business, slowing its development and lowering profits. Arguably, employees not taking advantage of their rest periods risk suffering from burnout, affecting their overall performance and having a significantly negative impact on employee morale. This can potentially lead to high levels of employee turnover, something which can be very costly for a company and foster a poor reputation.
If you are noticing that your staff are regularly making themselves available whilst out of the office, you need to ask yourself “why?” It may be that they are concerned about the consequences of taking too much time away from their allocated workload, anxious that it will build up in their absence or fearful that the work will not get completed to the required standard. In these situations, it would be wise to evaluate how the current work is distributed and whether a more even, fair spread is needed. Employees should also be encouraged to talk to their managers if they feel overworked in order for an appropriate solution to be explored. If there is too much work for current staffing levels to handle, it may well be that additional employees are required.
Although the nature of some industries means that 24 hour operations are common and there will be urgent situations that require a quick response, employers should consider whether it is necessary for out-of-hours work to take place during periods when the office is shut. It is important that staff feel able to take full advantage of the minimum rest periods for their own health and wellbeing, and, if avoidable, they should be discouraged from responding to queries from home.