Employees are finding it more difficult to be "off the clock" at the end of the day, thanks to a surge in remote work, and the ease with which employers can reach staff via smart phones, emails and internet. In response, the Ontario government has introduced right to disconnect legislation that would "improve work/life balance and allow employees to spend more time with family."
If passed, the Working for Workers Act, 2021 would require employers with more than 25 employees to have a written policy limiting after-hours communication. This is the first legislation of its kind in Canada.
"The boundary between work and personal time has become increasingly blurred, says Krista Schmid, WSPS Specialized Services Lead (Healthy Workplaces). "Employees are feeling pressure to be continuously available, even if it intrudes on personal time, with predictable results - overwork, stress, anxiety, absenteeism, presenteeism, and burnout."
A right to disconnect policy that's part of a workplace's psychological health and safety strategy makes sense for employees and employers alike. "To maximize the benefits of remote and flexible working environments, we need to ensure employees have proper breaks so they can be mentally and physically healthy, productive, and efficient," says Krista.
Generally, a right to disconnect policy tells employees and managers that your workplace does not expect its workforce to be "always on," and reinforces a culture of mutual respect. It permits employees to disconnect in their off hours without penalty, and provides guidelines to managers and supervisors about when it's okay to communicate with employees in a changing work landscape.
Since the Working for Workers Act, 2021 is still in the early stages of review, don't wait for it to come into force before you and your employees profit from the benefits. Build your policy now. Here are six considerations from Krista.
- Set up a team with the expertise to develop and communicate your policy, monitor implementation, and evaluate (at least once a year) how well it is working. Include HR, managers, the joint health and safety committee, and others.
- Begin the policy with an overview. Talk about your workplace's support for employee physical and mental wellbeing. Explain how the policy will help improve well-being and work/life balance by guaranteeing uninterrupted time away from work. Actively encourage employees to disconnect after their workday is done.
- Explain how the policy works, including how it will be implemented and evaluated, and what is expected of all workplace parties. For example, supervisors, managers and senior management are responsible for not communicating with employees after their workday is done via emails, telephone calls, or video calls.
- Specify expected hours of work. With more people working remotely, these may vary. "Some people still work 9-5. Others work shifts, have flex hours, or have unique arrangements with their employers," notes Krista. "Ensure managers, supervisors and employees have a clear understanding of when communication is and isn't permitted, and when exceptions may apply." Among possible exceptions: approved overtime, on-call work, and emergencies (e.g. the need to replace an employee who has called in sick).
- Train all employees on the purpose of the policy, expected behaviours, and how it will be enforced. Reluctance to disconnect may reflect overwork or a culture that rewards extra work. For the policy to succeed, managers and supervisors must 1) show leadership and be good role models, 2) set manageable workloads, 3) help employees with time management skills, and 4) measure productivity in a way that is not tied exclusively to hours of work. Don't consider an employee’s agreement to work overtime as criteria for promotion or recognition, and don't favour employees who exceed the set hours over those who choose to disconnect.
- Establish a system where employees can safely raise issues and expect resolution. Employees may still have concerns about overwork, supervisors contacting them after the workday, or being penalized for not putting in extra work. Implementing such a system will bring workplace culture a step closer to ensuring a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.
How WSPS can help
- What is a healthy workplace? (article)
- What does workplace mental health have to do with you? Everything. (article)
- Our definition of health & safety includes mental harm prevention. Does yours? (brochure)
- ThinkMentalHealth.ca, a website created by Ontario's health and safety system partners that provides access to reputable and tested mental health tools, models and frameworks.
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.