Can your boss legally stop you from a digital detox?

Tom Kerr-Williams
Brits Enjoy The Unusually Hot Weather
Going analogue: Busy senior executives don't want to be forced to go cold turkey while they're on annual leave (Source: Getty)

Picture this. You are on the beach in a glorious tropical location, lying in the sun and sipping your first Pina Colada of the day. The kids (if you have them) are amusing themselves in the crystal clear sea.

You keep trying to relax, but your nerves are on edge; the work phone keeps buzzing as emails come in. You know that your colleagues expect you to be available and reluctantly check your messages. And the rest of the day (and your pineapple flavoured cocktail) is lost as you help manage the latest crisis. Sound familiar?

Many senior executives now struggle to take time away from work, even on a long summer vacation. Does this simply come with the territory of having a senior job in a connected world, or are employers expecting more? Are employees legally entitled to a digital detox, and is it feasible?

Always connected

All employees in the UK are entitled to at least 5.6 working weeks’ holiday each year, including bank holidays. In general terms, employers and employees must agree when that holiday is taken. But when you are on holiday there is strictly speaking no absolute legal entitlement to be left alone.

The feasibility of a detox therefore depends upon the role the employee performs and the approach of the organisation employing them.

Managers who expect their people to be available during holidays should have a very clear policy on this and ensure that is clearly communicated to employees.

Read more: How to stop employees pulling a sickie

If an employer wanted to discipline, dismiss or performance manage an employee for refusing to answer emails when on holiday, they would need a clear basis for doing so. The likelihood of such action being fair would depend upon how clear the company had been in setting out its expectations, how much to blame the staff member is for failing to meet them, and the seriousness of the failure.

Case for a claim

If you’re on holiday in a remote location with no access to the internet, you’re less likely to be at fault than a colleague who is connected but refuses on principle to take an important call over a bank holiday weekend.

Staff who are not allowed any down time when on leave may technically have a claim against their employer under the working time regulations, but that claim would be of very limited value. A personal injury claim could follow if things got really bad, but only in a very extreme case.

Read more: Three top tips for a reluctant digital detox

Cold turkey

In some industries, such as financial services, employees are often required to take a period of “core leave”, during which they are told not to review emails.

In theory, this ensures that nobody can avoid the checks and balances required in a regulated environment. It also demonstrates that a detox is possible. However, enforced cold turkey is often the last thing that a busy senior executive wants.

Empowering employees to make their own decisions about how to handle time away from work is often the best policy.

Businesses can find it challenging to strike the right balance, but it is possible. Ed Stacey, in his role as people partner for PwC Legal, explains our firm’s approach. “Across our business we have told our people there is no expectation that they should review emails while on holiday.

“However, we have also made clear that people can choose to do so if that works better for them. Ultimately, all of our people are empowered to make that choice and that choice will be respected.”