Pandemic puts 'right to disconnect' in spotlight as provinces inch toward policies

With federal policies in the works, Ontario and Quebec are working on their own legislation that strengthens the rights of employees to disconnect from any work-related duties outside of their scheduled hours.

One insurance executive has advised staff not to schedule meetings or take calls before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m.

Canadians working from home during the pandemic have found themselves increasingly balancing work needs with family duties, like caring for children at home because of school or daycare outbreaks. New 'right to disconnect' legislation from Ontario and Quebec seeks to change that. (Carlos G. Lopez/Shutterstock)

During Danish Yusuf's morning routine, his work phone rarely rings and seldom is there an appointment with his Toronto insurance company staff.

The lack of disruptions is no coincidence. Yusuf instructed staff not to plan meetings or send electronic communications early in the morning or after 5 p.m. years ago in hopes of helping staff relax and enjoy their personal lives.

"I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and people will not schedule a meeting with me between 8 and 9 a.m. because that's when I'm giving her breakfast, changing her and dropping her off to daycare," said the chief executive at Zensurance.

"My team knows that and people appreciate that."

His policy has taken on new importance and been considered by more companies and governments as the lines between work and personal lives have blurred even further during the pandemic.

Workers spent more time logged in during pandemic

Canadians working from home during the crisis have found themselves increasingly balancing their boss's needs with family duties, like caring for children at home because of school outbreaks.

Stepping away from the phone or computer can be tough, when many are no longer commuting and the allure of going out has diminished as COVID-19 cases rise again.

The average time Canadian workers spent logged onto a computer increased from nine to 11 hours a day during the pandemic, cybersecurity company NordLayer found in February.

More recently, a November report from human resources software company Ceridian found 84 per cent of the 1,304 Canadian workers surveyed by Hanover Research felt burned out over the last two years.

Some are anxious for these stats to change.

Commuters wear protective face masks in the underground metro railway station in Paris, France, on June 9, 2021. A 2016 law gave workers in France the right to turn off electronic work devices outside of business hours, something Canada's federal government began reviewing in 2018. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)

Provinces not waiting for Ottawa on laws

Inspired by a 2016 law giving workers in France the right to turn off electronic work devices outside of business hours, Canada's federal government started reviewing labour standards and mulling whether to give workers the right to ignore work-related messages when at home in 2018.

A committee convened in October was expected to analyze the issue and provide then-Labour Minister Filomena Tassi with recommendations in spring.

Michelle Johnston, director of communications for new Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan, wouldn't confirm whether the recommendations were ever received, but said in an email that "work on this file continues."

However, Quebec and Ontario aren't waiting for federal regulations.

Ontario received royal assent for new "right to disconnect" legislation on Dec. 2. It forces employers with at least 25 staff to develop policies on disconnecting from work in the next six months, but doesn't specify which scenarios businesses have to address.

WATCH | Ontario passes a new 'right to disconnect' law:

Ontario passes ‘right to disconnect’ law

2 years ago
Duration 6:18
Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton joins Power & Politics to discuss new legislation that requires employers with 25 or more employees to create a written policy on the right to disconnect from emails and calls outside of regular work hours.

Legislation difficult to enforce

"It's going to be a piece of legislation that is pretty nice to see on the shelf, but that doesn't have a bunch of teeth," Sunira Chaudhri, a partner at Workly Law in Toronto, predicted.

She feels the legislation will be difficult to enforce and will trigger waves of complaints to the labour ministry from workers completing tasks long after their shifts have ended.

Though inspired by Ontario, Quebec is aiming to be tougher.

The Quebec Solidaire party introduced a bill in December demanding that companies share "the periods during which an employee is entitled to be disconnected from all job-related communications" on a weekly basis. Non-compliant employers will be charged $100,000.

Until Ontario and Quebec inched toward legislation, Chaudhri was never asked to draw up disconnect policies.

She knows of businesses that previously implemented rules around electronic messaging after hours, but was told their policies have largely been ignored by employees. She fears the same will happen when legislation is in effect.

"A policy is only as strong as the employees actually implementing it," said Chaudhri.

"If employers draw them up and then just put them in the drawer never to be seen again, that is really the risk here."

Toronto labour lawyer Sunira Chaudri, seen in 2019, says that until Ontario and Quebec inched toward legislation, Chaudhri was never asked to draw up policies about the right to disconnect. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

Companies will have to consider new policies

Forthcoming legislation will change little for Zensurance, which is already clear about its policies and has designated on-call workers for emergencies like cyberattacks or system outages.

However, the process may be more onerous for companies starting from scratch.

They must consider what circumstances should be exempt from a ban on after hours messaging, what to do about people skirting or violating policies and how expectations will vary for different departments and industries.

For example, it may be easier for someone on a factory floor to leave tasks at work, but more difficult for health-care workers, lawyers and realtors, who are often on call or prone to encountering after hours issues that can't be delayed.

But Anthony Kaul hopes employers won't let complexity keep them from setting expectations around the right to disconnect because workers value clarity.

The co-founder of Kitchener, Ont.-based Cloud DX long encouraged staff at his health technology company to leave work messages unanswered afterhours, unless it's an emergency on-call staff can't handle.

LISTEN | Could forcing companies to create disconnect policies actually work?

CBC workplace columnist Rubina Ahmed-Haq says a new Ontario law forcing companies to develop a work-life balance policy could be coming to all provinces and territories soon, but will it work?

The informal policy evolved "naturally" because Kaul is a "family man," but it's also part of the company's roots.

"We don't really have a culture of people sitting there with their phones, hooked up to the cloud or email, next to their bed at 9 p.m.," he said.

"We're here to make health care better for everybody. That's our mission and it includes our own people. We can't drive them into the ground."