The pandemic has changed the landscape of an employee’s work life in its entirety. Employees were uprooted from their normal routines and required to work from their homes. The result? Growing concerns regarding burnout and a blurring of lines between work and home life. This alert will explore Canada’s recent legislative policy aimed at employee welfare and giving its citizens a right to disconnect.
Bill 27, also known as the Working for Workers Act (2021), was introduced to combat growing concerns around employee well-being and their ability to distinguish between work and home life. The bill introduced a number of amendments to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (2000) but the most significant amendment is the Right to Disconnect—an amendment requiring employers of 25 or more employees to have a written policy in place regarding employees’ right to disconnect from work. The policy was ultimately implemented on June 2, 2022.
What is the Right to Disconnect?
The Western Culture has in many ways become an "Always On” Culture. Because of the internet and our other means of communication, there is an expectation of an instant response and always being available 24/7. Corporate culture has implemented this notion requiring employees to always be connected, making the idea of “switching off” even harder for workers to comprehend or even consider.
The pandemic made this task even more difficult. According to a Rollins School of Public Health Survey in 2020, “One of the most widely reported negative impacts of working from home was the struggle to separate work and home life.” Among the respondents, 56% agreed that “Working from home makes it harder to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day.” Canada’s legislation further solidifies the meaning of being able to “switch off” or “disconnect.” Within the legislation, “disconnecting from work” is defined as not engaging in work-related communications including e-mails, telephone calls, video calls and other messages. Its purpose? To allow employees “to be free from the performance of work.”
Concerns Regarding the Right to Disconnect
After its implementation, concerns surfaced regarding the scope, application and enforcement. From the outset, the amendment leaves employers with the ultimate task of determining the content of their policy. As a result, many companies are creating policies that lack substance and implementation measures, leaving employees questioning their effectiveness. Aside from the policy issues, questions regarding consequences in implementation have continued to arise, including raised stress levels, increased pressure to meet deadlines and a lack of flexibility.
While the broader Canadian government is exploring the option to prohibit federal employees from responding to phone calls off-hours, the bill has specified that should a business have multiple offices, the written policy applies only to employees in Ontario locations. As written now, it is unclear whether there will be employer and employee exceptions under the right-to-disconnect policy. Under Ontario's Employment Standards Act 2000, occupations such as agriculture, construction, health care, manufacturing, hospitality, law, law enforcement and transportation are exempt, therefore there may be a possibility of continued exemptions to the right to disconnect.
What Does This Mean for the United States?
Efforts to address the issues of burnout and work-life balance in the United States have been slim. Individual companies have started to address this ever-growing problem but legislative efforts are nonexistent. For example, Volkswagen, a German-owned company, in 2011 introduced policies to configure email servers so emails could only be sent from 30 minutes before the working day begins until 30 minutes after it ends and not at all during weekends. Implementing a similar right for employees to disconnect will take diligence from employers in creating a written policy and enforcing its contents. Some helpful components to consider include setting employee expectations, creating scenarios that may arise from its implementation and how employees should respond, and requiring management to ensure effective implementation. Although the United States has yet to seek out legislative effort to combat the growing employee well-being crisis, employers can start looking inward and enforce a culture that nourishes and fosters its employees by allowing them the freedom to disconnect from the workplace.