Effective June 2, 2022, Ontario will become the first Canadian jurisdiction where employers must have written policies ensuring employees can disconnect from their jobs and refrain from engaging in work-related communication after hours.
What will this mean for workers, particularly those who routinely put in long hours? What do employers need to know as the deadline draws near? For now, it’s hard to be certain about the impact the change will have. Still, while the legislation may be well-intentioned, legal observers say it’s imprecise and impractical in its current form, with the potential for unforeseen issues to arise.
Rather than wait for clarity, some employers are getting ahead of the curve, urging their employees to take control of their time so as to better maintain balance, and providing tools to help workers disconnect from their jobs more easily, especially those in work-from-home environments.
“It is much harder to mentally disconnect when you’re just going from one room to the other,” said one such business owner, Danish Yusuf, founder and CEO of Zensurance. “We have to keep encouraging people to set their boundaries and turn off notifications.”
In recent years, France, Spain, and Italy all passed laws giving workers the right to disconnect from their jobs once work hours were over. In 2018, Canada’s federal government began considering the idea – a Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee produced a final report in February, 2022.
Ontario’s government moved more briskly, passing the Working for Workers Act, 2021 last November. Among other things, the legislation requires employers with 25 or more employees to develop disconnect policies, such as establishing guidelines around response times for emails, and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they’re not working.
Citing a lack of guidance and direction, employment lawyer Tanya Sambi of Minken Employment Lawyers said she foresees confusion, and an unclear enforcement situation, once the June 2 deadline passes.
“One of the things that makes this legislation so impractical is that right now there’s nothing that says what you must put in the policy,” Sambi said. “Employers are left on their own. They could effectively put nothing in the policy and it would almost likely hold up.”
While some workers might welcome the prospect of guaranteed peace once each work day ends, Sambi said an overly rigid application of right-to-disconnect rules might penalize or inhibit those employees who are motivated, often by financial incentives, to go above and beyond with their time.
“A lot of people’s bonuses are tied to their performance or how they distinguish themselves from other employees,” Sambi said. “That’s a way this legislation might harm an employee. Even though it looks like it’s there to protect employees, it might have a damaging effect.”
Long before he founded Zensurance, Yusuf learned to schedule his correspondence. If he crafted a message to staff while working after hours, he knew it was better to wait till the following morning to send it.
At his new business, even ahead of the pandemic, Yusuf gave his 200 Zensurance employees across Canada the freedom and flexibility to take control of their schedules. Staff could recharge over longer lunch breaks and make up time later on or, as Yusuf himself did, block meeting-free periods in the early morning that allowed him to regularly drop his daughter at daycare.
“People should set their own boundaries and communicate them,” Yusuf said. “If me and the senior leadership are setting that example, others may also feel comfortable doing something similar. People still need to get their work done, and they have targets and goals, but if they have ownership of their time, they define what their boundaries are.”
Zensurance employees are also encouraged to display their ‘at work’ hours on the company’s internal messaging system, indicating when they’re no longer receiving notifications for the day, and when they’ll be back online.
Beyond those technical aids, Yusuf said regular reinforcement is needed to help employees strike the right balance, especially for those working from home.
“You have to put some tools in place to help people disconnect, and then it’s just a constant reminder to people that it’s up to them to manage their hours,” he said. “We can’t enforce it.”
Yusuf said it’s up to each business owner, in consultation with staff, to decide what’s reasonable and fair when drafting a right to disconnect policy for their workplace.
“The area businesses need to think about is how do they want to engage their employees, what are the expectations they’ve set with them, and do they want to re-think those expectations,” he said. “You set the expectations, you communicate it, and then you operate based on it.