Joanne O’Connell

Joanne O’Connell, Founder of Employment Solicitor magazine, explains why she is in favour of Scroll Free September's Busy Bee initiative.

Walk into any workplace, and you’ll see people glued to their phones. And while this won’t destroy most people’s careers (we’ve all heard the stories about misjudged tweets getting people sacked), those selfie snaps and swipes to the right can be a major distraction. 

In fact, when asked to name the biggest productivity killer at work, a survey of US employees responded that their phone and texting topped the list. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider research that claims: 83% of millennials open text messages within 90 seconds of receiving them; around a quarter of women in their 30s check their phones 200 times a day; and nearly nine in ten people in the UK have at least one social media account.

The productivity study from the US, that I mentioned, also found that three in four employers (75 %) say two or more hours a day are lost in productivity because employees are distracted. Forty-three per cent say at least three hours a day are lost. 

Three hours a day. That’s quite a lot when you think about it. It’s fifteen hours a week and 780 hours a year. And while the research makes it clear that not all of that time is lost to social media, scrolling is one distraction that many of us could instantly do something about. 

This isn’t about stopping the positive inspiration that social media can sometimes give us. It’s about the mindless scrolling that saps our time and sometimes, our confidence (what’s the point in preparing for that presentation, when so-and-so in the Manchester office is all over the company Twitter account re-tweeting the praise they got for theirs?). Could it be that if we skipped social media during working hours, we might be more focussed, happier and less distracted? 

It’s worth thinking about, at a time when despite our relentlessly-long working hours, and rise in workplace-related stress, the UK’s productivity figures look gloomy. And while our social media use is only a small part of this, on an individual basis, limiting it at work can make a real difference. (Imagine if turning off notifications made us so productive we got a promotion or could switch to a four-day week?).  

It works both ways

Employees may scroll Insta looking for ideas of what to have for lunch (while at their desk) but there are plenty of employers that routinely contact their workforce in the evenings, at weekends and while they’re on holiday, and don’t allow them to switch off outside work. A recent survey by Glassdoor, for example, found that as many as one in five of the UK workforce say they are expected to be reachable while on holiday, and aware of work issues if needed. 

According to psychologists, this constant connectivity and “always on” culture makes us frantic, disengaged and distracted. So, good employers can also help to support employees to switch off outside of working hours and give themselves a break from work.

Gap in the law

Part of the problem in the UK is that there are no specific employment laws, which bar employers from contacting employees out of working hours. And there are no set rules which prevents employees from logging on – whether an employer wants them to or not – and over-working by emailing late into the night or managing work social media in the early hours. 

There have recently been two Court of Appeal decisions and a European Court of Justice decision, which look at our culture of long working hours, in relation to working time and health and safety. Generally speaking, though, the UK’s employment law is not as clear as it could be when it comes to our “always on” work/life culture.

There is no “right to disconnect” like there is in French law, for example. In France, some employees have been given the right to switch off electronic devices out of working hours, under what’s known as the El Khomri law (it’s named after a former French labour minister). This means that employees who uses digital telecoms devices as part of their work have the right to switch off their devices outside of working hours – without a negative comeback from the employer. As was demonstrated in a recent case, where the French wing of a British firm was ordered to pay a former employee £53,000 because it failed to respect his “right to disconnect” outside office hours.   


So, what can employers do in the UK to help support their staff to be focussed at work and cut the compulsive message checking when they’re at home? A good start towards a fairer workplace culture that supports good work while at work, and taking a break away from it, is a responsible policy that sets out reasonable guidelines about social media and contact outside of working hours. 

Many businesses do have social media policies in place. Seriously badmouth your boss on Facebook, for example, and chances are you’re looking at a settlement agreement or even a potential dismissal. But how about having a fair and comprehensive policy that deals with social media at work and reasonable contact/the expectation that employees will switch off from work outside of working hours, too? 

Employers can also support the Busy Bee part of Scroll Free September. This is a brilliant way to challenge employees to consider how much they scroll during working hours (up to three hours a day, anyone?) and the impact that has on their work. Taking the challenge could not only boost employees mental health and engagement at work but be an active way to demonstrate that an employer wants to support employees to “switch off” outside work. And that in turn, may help us all kick-start a happier, healthier work/life balance.