Ontario ‘right to disconnect’ law may deny workers the freedom they want


ANDREA SHEASBY WAS DROWNING in work. Leaving the office to work from home didn’t help. She finally had to quit her job to disconnect from it all. A new law in Ontario is supposed to give workers a less drastic out.

The new law will soon give Ontario workers the “right to disconnect” from their jobs. But there’s a catch: it’s the boss who gets to decide what a right to disconnect policy includes and how it gets applied. Ontario employers with more than 25 workers have until June 2 to draft written right-to-disconnect policies.

Nonetheless, for many, the new legislation can’t come soon enough.

Working longer than ever

In a 2021 global survey by human resources consultancy Adecco, the majority of respondents said they were spending more time working than before the pandemic, and 40 per cent of 1,000 Canadians surveyed reported suffering from burnout or working too hard over the previous year.

The number of people simply checking out has also spiked. New numbers from the Conference Board of Canada show that for workers in knowledge-based industries, resignations, early retirements and leaves of absence were up to 17.1% in 2021-21—a jump of 10 percentage points from 2020.

Experts believe employers will likely focus their right to disconnect policies on digital communications, taking steps such as delaying delivery of emails outside office hours, setting clear expectations for employee response times, or encouraging workers to use out-of-office messages when they’re off the clock.

Must also deal with overwork issue

But experts say that won’t be enough to retain employees and productivity levels. Bosses will have to go beyond rules about email and have difficult conversations about overwork and how to enforce policies equitably so they don’t harm workers with care-giving responsibilities.

“Policy doesn’t make practice,” said Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business who studies the balance between work and family.

“If you work at an organization that has a culture which expects 24/7 availability … it’s a career-limiting move if you’re not constantly available to your boss.”

Jane Fraser, the CEO of U.S. bank Citigroup, made news last year for talking about the stressors that come with unending days of remote work.

It’s not just the long hours, she wrote on LinkedIn, “it is the density of the day.”

The ‘density of the day’

“Bouncing from one Zoom to the next. Barely a minute to catch your breath. To reflect, digest, or prepare for what’s next,” said Fraser, who has said the bank would carve out Zoom-free hours and avoid booking calls outside of work hours.

If senior employees don’t lead by example, the whole thing falls apart, said Tanya Gullison, chief revenue officer at human resources consulting firm LHH Canada.

When higher-ups send emails at 9 or 10 p.m. and others respond, she said, “that’s really going to create more anxiety for employees who believe they’re following the right to disconnect policy.”

There’s also a risk that women will pay a price, and that right-to-disconnect rules could widen the gender gap, said Naureen Rizvi, Ontario regional director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union.

Questions of risk and reward

“Women who have additional home and child-care responsibilities (could) opt into disconnect policies while their male counterparts volunteer to fill the void and advance,” she said in a statement last fall.

Unifor has created sample language on the right to disconnect for collective bargaining and it could help address the gender gap by making clear that workers cannot be penalized for disconnecting but nor can others be rewarded for “choosing to stay connected.”

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