Some companies block work emails while staff are away or monitor internet use, but they must tell workers first
In today’s “always-on” society, even taking a holiday — and then returning to work afterwards — can be a stressful experience.
The widespread use of smartphones and notepads, which can be linked to work email accounts, has led to a change in working habits, which means many people find themselves reviewing and responding to work emails in the evening, at weekends or while they are on holiday.
In some industries, workers have been encouraged to stretch their workings days by an emphasis on customer service and responsiveness. However, good employers will recognise that such working practices can lead to individuals becoming overworked and stressed, with a negative impact on productivity.
Some employers have introduced measures to address the problem, such as blocking access to work email while people are on holiday and allowing them to delete everything in their inbox on their return to help ease them back into work. In some instances, employers may also choose to monitor their employee’s internet use and their email, texts or voicemails while they are off.
Clearly workers need a proper break. A well-rested employee is more likely to be motivated and energised, and there can be health and safety issues if an employee does not take proper breaks and ends up absent from sickness. One problem, however, is that many people use their work phones and notepads for both work-related and personal communications; switching off is difficult and texts and emails become intrusive.
How should employers go about this in the right way — ensuring best practice and minimising the risk of workplace disputes? Blocking access to work emails while employees are on holiday is permissible under UK law, but employers are advised to make sure there is a company policy that is communicated to all workers. The policy should also make it clear whether the rule applies to all annual leave.
Similarly, employers who wish to introduce a policy allowing workers to erase the content of their inboxes when they come back from holiday should manage this appropriately. For example, if the IT department is instructed to do this on their behalf, consent should be obtained beforehand — ideally as soon as the employee commences work.
The monitoring of internet use and email activity is more tightly regulated. Employers are permitted to monitor an employee’s work email, internet and text messaging activity — for example, if they have reason to suspect behaviour that could involve criminal activity, or where it is in the interests of national security. In some instances, monitoring may also be permissible to ensure compliance with the employer’s rules and procedures, but the law states that employees must be warned in advance that this may happen.
Some employers may believe they already have the consent of their employees to access their inbox or monitor their communications activity because they have included clauses referring to their use of investigatory powers in employment contracts. This, though, may not be enough to protect them in all circumstances.
Having a clear communications policy in place, preferably signed by employees, can help to ensure the entire workforce is fully aware of what might happen.
Above all, as holiday time approaches, it is important employers are as open as possible with their employees about any monitoring that could take place while they are away, and state the business reasons for it.