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As more employees are returning to the office, whether full-time or using a hybrid of office and home work, there have been renewed calls to promote a better work-life balance.

Many employees who have been working from their living rooms, bedrooms or kitchen tables have found it increasingly difficult to maintain a work-life balance. Employees have reported longer working days as they have found it difficult to separate their working life from their home life. As a result, work forces are becoming fatigued and employers have been looking for ways to support their employees and encourage adequate breaks and rest periods.

Following the roll out of vaccinations against Covid-19, many businesses are in the process of evaluating their working arrangements. It is clear that there will be changes to the typical 9-5 working day in an office environment. Each employer will be looking closely at their working practices as it is likely employees will expect a greater degree of flexibility as they return to office based work.

Businesses leading by example include Microsoft who informed its staff that they will have the option of working from home permanently and US carmaker Ford who announced similar plans for 30,000 employees.

In an attempt to promote a more positive work-life balance and avoid ‘zoom fatigue’ the American investment bank Citigroup has urged its staff to observe “Zoom-free Fridays” and even designated a company-wide holiday at the end of May in order to encourage their employees to rest.

The trade union Prospect are calling for employees to have a legally binding “right to disconnect”. This would involve legally preventing bosses from routinely emailing or calling employees outside of working hours. It could mean that any emails sent at these times could be automatically deleted to stop employees from continually checking their inbox outside of working hours.

The right to disconnect has been law in France for the last four years and last month Ireland brought in a code of practice to support this practice. The Irish code of practice recommends that employers should add email footers and pop-up messages to remind employees they have “no duty to reply to emails outside of working hours”.

A good work-life balance is key for both employers and employees. It prevents burn out and work-related stress which promotes productivity and an engaged work force. A legal right to disconnect or guidance on replying to work related emails out of hours may be beneficial to some industries but it may also be detrimental in others where additional hours are required due to the nature of the work. It is a difficult balance to strike.

Regardless of the complexities surrounding achieving a good work-life balance it is essential that all employees take their requisite breaks. It is a legal requirement that all employees who have worked continuously for 6 hours must be afforded at least a 20 minute break (longer if they are under 18 years of age). In addition employers must encourage employees to take their annual leave in order to provide adequate breaks from work. A full time employee is entitled to a minimum of 28 days annual leave, which includes the usual bank holidays in England and Wales.

It is important that the necessary breaks are given and that employees are encouraged to take them. Failure to allow an employee to take breaks and holiday can result in stress related absences and also employment tribunal claims which can be costly to defend.

If you would like advice on issues of flexible working, returning to office-based working or issues relating to holidays or breaks please contact either Nick Smith or Laura Tennet of the Mincoffs Employment Team.

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