Is there no problem, these days, which can’t be fixed by the state? When the cry goes up “Why doesn’t someone do something about it?”, that someone is almost always government.

Labour’s plan to give staff a “right to disconnect”, to stop bosses contacting them out of hours, feels like a classic of the genre. Burnout is real. But one reason home and work lives have become so blurred is that so many of us have chosen to work from home. I’m not sure how the same politicians who support “flexible working” can simultaneously second-guess our working day. If I collect my child from school in the afternoon, then get back to my desk in the evening, should I not send any emails? What if I’m contacting colleagues in another timezone or working on a corporate deal?

Having some kind of formal permission to switch off feels attractive. Scrolling through emails just before bedtime can raise the blood pressure. I’ve recently started using the “schedule send” function, so that emails I write late at night don’t land until 9am the next morning. And I’ve noticed a lot of people now have email footers assuring me their message isn’t urgent.

But this is proof that organisations are already adjusting. Much has been made of the fact that France and Spain have introduced a right to disconnect. But France already has the 35-hour working week — a policy that has had to spawn exemptions to accommodate the real world. One rule of thumb for policymaking might be: don’t pass a law that will be flouted, by both staff and bosses, because they think it’s nonsense.

Meanwhile in Spain last year, the offices of PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte received surprise visits from government inspectors checking whether staff had done unrecognised overtime. Had these been Amazon warehouses, chivvying exhausted workers to go on stacking shelves, this might have made sense. But in big accounting firms, jobs are fought over by thousands of applicants, most of whom are fully aware that the trade-off is high salaries for long hours. Tight labour markets have already empowered staff: they can resign.

If you work on a checkout, or in a call centre, your biggest problem is not the boss WhatsApping you on your day off. It’s inflation, insecurity and the threat of automation. In its New Deal for Working People policy paper, Labour promises, if it wins the election, to strengthen workers’ rights by banning zero-hours contracts, raising the minimum wage and making workers eligible for sick pay and parental leave from day one. All these changes would make the lives of gig economy workers less precarious. However, it also includes a host of other proposals: extended maternity and paternity leave, a right to bereavement leave, stronger collective bargaining and giving all workers the right to work flexibly from day one, “as far as is reasonable”.

The document argues that fair and secure work improves productivity, because staff are happier. There is merit in that. But too many new rules will fuel the burgeoning legal and compliance industry. When politicians talk about “growth”, I don’t think that’s the kind they mean.

The Conservatives have form here too. They introduced gender pay gap reporting, up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parents whose babies need neonatal care, and the “right to request” flexible working from day one, rather than 26 weeks into a job. Their changes to the IR35 rule, which obliges employers to determine the tax status of freelancers, have left companies having to seek costly legal advice and forced many contractors to pay tax as employees without receiving any rights in return. Meanwhile the carer’s leave bill, introduced by the Liberal Democrats but supported by all the main parties, will give more than 2mn people a statutory right to take five days of unpaid leave per year.

Who could disagree with helping someone whose new baby needs specialist care, or is juggling work with looking after an elderly relative? Individually, these changes sound unobjectionable. Taken together, they add up. Policymakers claim to care about productivity but never ask about the ratio of compliance officers, employment lawyers and training managers to staff doing “real” jobs.

Some compliance roles, after all, are the kind of “bullshit jobs” identified by anthropologist David Graeber, who showed that pointless work is almost as bad as no work at all. Small companies don’t even have the luxury of hiring a compliance officer. It’s the business owner, working late into the night to fill out all the extra forms. How that helps work-life balance I’m not sure.

Maternity leave, paid holidays, sick pay, equality legislation: these are hard-won, vital worker protections. But the endless drip of new employment laws from politicians who have rarely run anything signals that employers can’t be trusted. There will always be some who cut corners. But most CEOs and managers make huge efforts to navigate post-pandemic norms and worry about the mental health of their staff. Creating a right to work from home, one told me, would cut across efforts to treat everyone fairly — half his staff have to come in to serve customers. When the world of work is in such transition, it would be wiser to leave such decisions to employers.

In 2018, a French court ordered Rentokil to pay a former employee €60,000 after ruling the company had breached his right to disconnect. The man was a director who had been asked to keep his phone on in case of emergency. When we are desperate for inward investment, when the public finances are a gaping black hole, helping employees to switch off feels — dare I say — trivial.

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