For some Canadians, working from home during the pandemic has created even more of a blur between work and home life as kitchens and dens have turned into remote offices.
To help workers achieve better work-life balance, the Ontario government has introduced legislation that would force employers to develop policies allowing workers to unplug from the office after their shift.
The legislation would require employers with 25 or more workers to develop disconnecting-from-work policies, which could include expectations about response time for emails and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they are not working.
At a news conference on Monday, Monte McNaughton, the province’s minister of labour, training and skills development, said he doesn’t want Ontario to become a province of burned-out workers.
“The lines between family time and work time have been blurred,” he said. “Everyone should be able to unplug at the end of their work day.”
But work-life balance expert Linda Duxbury said such legislation may actually contribute to the problem. That’s because employees will still have to get their work done — even if they can’t send emails after hours.
“A rule saying you can’t do something after a certain time will add stress.,” she said.
Duxbury suggested a key way to help employees achieve work-life balance is to ensure they’re not swamped.
“Workloads have become astronomic, and … we simply don’t have enough staff or people to do the work required anymore, which means that work leaks into our evenings and weekends,” she said.
Ottawa exploring ‘right to disconnect’
The issue of the right to disconnect after work hours has become a hot topic for workers across the globe as mobile technologies, email and gig work have helped blur the lines between being “in” and “out” of the office.
In 2016, France adopted legislation that gave employees the right to disconnect and not take work calls or answer emails after hours.
But in Canada, the Labour Code currently does not address limiting work-related electronic communications (such as email) after quitting time.
Canada’s labour minister, Filomena Tassi, has said one of her mandates is to develop a policy that would give federally regulated workers the “right to disconnect,” to improve work-life balance.
As part of the process, in March, she invited Canadians to participate in an online consultation to share their views on the topic.
“There is more work to be done to ensure that the [labour] standards keep up with the rapid pace of change driven by digital communications technology,” said Tassi in a statement.
But Duxbury said limiting the hours workers can read and respond to emails won’t necessarily aid in creating a work-life balance. Instead, she said workers need both a manageable workload and the flexibility to be able to address their email inbox when it’s convenient.
“For a lot of people … they would rather take some of the time during the nine-to-five day and deal with … their child-care issues, and then do the email when their kids go to sleep,” she said.
How one workplace is doing it
Despite a lack of legislation in Canada, some companies have voluntarily created policies granting employees the right to disconnect.
At Edelman, a global communications company with 250 Canadian employees, workers are encouraged not to respond to emails between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The company introduced the policy at its Canadian offices in 2013 and then rolled it out globally in 2019 as the ‘Edelman Dusk to Dawn’ policy.
Edelman also reminded employees of its policy at the start of COVID-19 as people started working from home.
“We really want to encourage that space because when you have a bit of recharge time, you actually are going to be a better version of yourself for our clients,” said Bianca Boyd, chief operating officer at Edelman Canada.
But she said there’s also flexibility built in for workers who would prefer to send emails at odd hours, because they’re also dealing with other demands during the day. In those cases, the employees would need to indicate why they’re emailing at that time and when they expect a response.
“It’s about creating that culture where it’s okay to switch off. And then there’s also some flexibility built in, that just makes sense for how people are working today,” said Boyd.
She also said Edelman has implemented ways to help employees deal with workload, such as holding “Focus Fridays” when no meetings are scheduled so people have time to finish their work.
But even with a “right to disconnect” policy in place, Boyd admits that avoiding emailing after hours is not an easy feat in our 24/7 work culture.
“I try really hard to only send urgent emails after 7 p.m.,” she said. “I’ve really trained myself to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to respond to that in the morning. You don’t need to respond to it right away.'”