Maintaining a healthy work-life balance has been made harder than ever as the line between workplace and home has started to blur.


When you hear a notification ping from your phone, can you guess who it’ll be from? Maybe it’s a friend sharing a meme or parents checking in? Maybe it’s your boss asking a question or reminding you about an upcoming deadline? The fact is, the digital workplace that’s been creeping into our lives for several years suddenly became the norm once the pandemic forced many workers to go remote.

While many may appreciate the increased flexibility that working from home provides, this new work culture has made it increasingly challenging to disconnect from one’s job. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance has been made harder than ever as the line between workplace and home has started to blur. A 2021 report from Statistics Canada found that many Canadians experience negative physical and mental health effects from not being able to “switch off” after work due to cognitive and emotional overload from constant connectivity.

Women in particular face challenges in achieving a work-life balance, often working more unpaid overtime and performing additional work activities compared to men. Women are also more likely to work in professional and office-based environments, where burnout from being always connected is more common.

In response, “right to disconnect” laws began appearing in Europe in the late 2010s: France in 2016, Italy in 2017, and Spain in 2018, and were designed to protect an employee’s right to not respond to calls and messages from work outside of regular working hours. The hope was that these rules would deter employers from overreaching into their employees’ private lives. These laws also made it clear that workers couldn’t be penalized for logging off by being denied raises or promotions. Some companies have also taken it upon themselves to introduce policies that protect the right to disconnect. As far back as 2011, Volkswagen began disabling its e-mail servers between 6:15 pm and 7:00 am to try to dissuade “crackberry” behaviours.

Inspired by these actions in Europe, the Ontario government introduced Bill 27 last year that, among other amendments to labour law, introduced right to disconnect legislation. The bill (now part of law and officially called the Working for Workers Act, 2021) mandates companies to prepare disconnection policies by June of this year. These policies must outline when employees can disconnect from work, defined as “not engaging in work-related communications, including e-mails, telephone calls, video calls or the sending or reviewing of other messages, so as to be free from the performance of work.”

At first glance this act seems like a victory for workers’ rights, but in reality it remains doubtful whether it will actually change anything. The wording of the law does not require businesses to uphold the right to disconnect, but only that they must create policies regarding their attitudes towards disconnecting from work. A policy that requires disconnection during evening hours would be just as valid as a policy that states “employees may never disconnect”. This law may even have a negative impact, as companies can tout their right to disconnect policies to job applicants without making meaningful changes to their work culture.


At first glance this act seems like a victory for workers’ rights, but in reality it remains doubtful whether it will actually change anything.


Even if these laws were fairly implemented by businesses, other significant hurdles remain. Legislation would have to explain how they prevent employers’ bias against employees who choose to disconnect. This bias is de facto outlawed in Bill 27, but it remains to be seen how the government will prevent this de jure. The law may not affect all workers equally, either. Workers that would benefit most from right to disconnect policies are those who work clearly defined and regular hours. This excludes people who enjoy flexible working hours that vary day by day.

In 2018, 15% of working Canadians were self-employed, up from 12% in the 1970s. A study that year found that people were making the switch to self-employment for more flexible hours, to balance family life and work, and for more independence and control over their career. This change in addition to the rise of the gig economy and the many people now working from home, indicates that the structure of Canadian workplaces are diversifying rapidly. This may suggest that workers’ rights protections will be increasingly difficult to enact across the board. As the definition of work changes in light of the pandemic, Canada needs a national definition of work to reduce ambiguity. In Quebec, a person is “at work” when they are assigned work at the workplace or waiting for an assignment, on a break period granted by their employer, or travelling or training as required by their employer. Unfortunately, most provinces and territories don’t have this distinction. Once we have a better understanding of what it means to be working, we determine how to healthily stop working.

While the right to disconnect has gained increasing interest over the past few years, the implementation, enforcement, and impact of these laws on the average worker haven’t yet been fully realized, and more research into meaningful solutions is needed.


References:

  1. Mehdi, T., &Morissette, R.2021. “Working from home in Canada: What have we learned so far?.”Economic and Social Reports. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 36-28-0001.
  2. Jeon, S-H., Liu, H., & Ostrovsky, Y. 2019. “Measuring the Gig Economy in Canada Using Administrative Data”Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11F0019M.
  3. Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee. “Final Report of the Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee.” February 2022.
  4. Working for Workers Act, 2021, S.O. 2021, c. 35 -Bill 27
  5. Yssaad, L., & Ferrao, V. 2019. “Self-employed Canadians: Who and Why?”Labour Statistics at a Glance. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 71-222-X.
  6. Pixabay.com – Free images
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