Julian Hemming: How far should an employer’s responsibility extend in supporting employees’ work-life balance?


Matsuri Takahashi jumped to her death at the age of 24 in December 2015 after working 100 hours’ overtime in just one month for her employer, Dentsu. While a sad and extreme example, there is no doubt that employers have a responsibility to support employees’ healthy work-life balance. So, how far does this responsibility extend?

Looking abroad, French employers are now required to give employees the right to disconnect from emails every evening and weekend. This new law has generally been positively received but French organisations have told me that the issue of overwork is better addressed through good workplace management and culture, not through a necessary business tool such as emails.

What about the UK? Employers have duties under the Health and Safety at Work legislation to provide a safe place of work and under the Working Time Regulations not to require employees to work excessive hours. Directors and managers can also be personally criminally responsible for health and safety offences. Interestingly, I am increasingly seeing discrimination claims by employees who claim they have been offended or abused on social media by co-workers who have lost sight of the distinction between colleagues and friends, which is a difficult area for employers to navigate.

To understand how these issues may be playing even subtly in their business, employers should look to spend time in parts of the business where they do not normally go; listen to and understand workers’ concerns; adopt a positive approach from the boardroom down, including diversity and health and safety training; set out clear policies on harassment and bullying, IT and social media. These things are easily forgotten in the ‘digital storm’ in which many work, but if employers can carry out their own health check, they will improve their culture, as well as recruitment and retention. Employers may also make their workplace happier, healthier and safer.

Julian Hemming is an employment partner and co-head of the international employment law group at international legal practice Osborne Clarke