Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness column

Why we need to be OK with not checking in on work when we're off: Jennifer Moss

As workload increases because of our ability to be accessible at all times of the day, our risk of burnout increases substantially, writes happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss. But companies don't have to wait for the government to create "right to disconnect" laws.

Companies don't have to wait for government to create 'right to disconnect' laws, Moss writes

A woman holds a child while sitting at a desk and working at a laptop computer.
It might not seem like a big deal to check emails during your off hours, but happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss says it's leading to burnout. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

It's 11:00 pm and you're already in bed when you hear a "ping!" You look at your phone and it's your boss. You're flooded with anxiety.

This is a scenario that many people face every single day and according to experts, it's a major contributor to burnout. 

France, Spain, Belgium and Italy have already established a statutory "right to disconnect" and it looks like a similar policy may be coming to parts of Canada

In Ontario, for example, proposed "right to disconnect" legislation would require employers with 25 or more employees to develop disconnecting-from-work policies, which could include expectations about response time for emails and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they are not working.

It also means reducing that invisible pressure to be available at all times of the day to ensure you will get ahead at your company. 

Pressure to check in

It's not an easy task. Not only do we feel pressure to check in, we are more addicted to our devices than ever before.

Since the pandemic, people have increased connectivity substantially. NordVPN has tracked its user data and found employees are logging in later and later. Spikes in usage showed up between midnight and 3 a.m., which were not present before 2020.

WatchOntario proposes right-to-disconnect legislation for workers

Ontario proposes right-to-disconnect legislation for workers

2 years ago
Duration 2:01
Featured VideoThe Ontario government has proposed legislation giving workers the right to disconnect, claiming it would help achieve a better work-life balance. But countries that have implemented similar policies, including France, say having set 'off' hours didn’t solve the problem.

We now spend around a third of our waking hours on mobile — up 20 per cent in the pandemic. Most of this can be attributed to our new virtual ways of working, and separation from family and friends during COVID-19 isolation and distancing rules. 

However, there is an impact to always being "on" and it isn't healthy. 

Impact of an always-on culture

As workload increases because of our ability to be accessible at all times of the day, our risk of burnout increases substantially. Pre-pandemic, workload was the leading cause of burnout, and it's even worse today. 

A global study by software company Oracle and Workplace Intelligence of more than 12,000 employees discovered that during the stress of 2020, 42 per cent of respondents still felt pressure to meet performance standards, 41 per cent said they were expected to handle more routine and tedious tasks, and 41 per cent said they were juggling unmanageable workloads.

The International Labour Organization reports that excessively long working hours contribute to the deaths of 2.8 million workers every year. And work-related pressure has increased over the past five years, with more than one-third of respondents citing excessive workloads and tight deadlines as their biggest concerns. 

Much of our after-hours workload is a result of distractions caused by juggling demands and dealing with chronic stress every day for 20 months. Obviously, this is not good for either our physical or mental health. 

How right to disconnect works in other countries

France was the first to lead on this policy in 2016. Employers who fail to include the right to disconnect in their Mandatory Annual Negotiation on gender equality and the nature of quality of life at work, can be liable to criminal prosecution for obstructing the exercise of union rights, punishable by one year in prison and a 3,750-euro fine.

France takes the law seriously. In July 2018, a former France-based employee of a British pest control company was awarded 60,000 euros for being required to be on call if issues arose. 

But some argue that the right to disconnect policy — in its current form — has flaws. Because it still focuses on time versus goals, it doesn't always support the freelance economy and those who may be working at odd hours due to time zones. 

Those working remotely have benefited from taking time to run an errand or pick up kids during the day and do extra work in the evening. Or, working when we felt more productive, which is different for everyone. That flexibility becomes more difficult if a right to disconnect policy was enforced.

Ireland is attempting to bring this thinking into its new policy. In April 2021, Irish workers were given the right to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours, not be penalized for refusing to attend to work matters out of hours and a duty to respect another person's right to disconnect. 

Importantly, the rules apply equally to workers who are both remote and in office. Ireland's policy also specifically references working across time zones, asking firms to manage expectations that workers doing international business need only reply to emails during their own working day. 

It also suggests training for managers, so they can take action if an employee seems unable to disconnect, and find out what's causing the problem.

Start disconnecting today 

If you are a leader in your organization or a manager, you shouldn't have to wait for the government to make the right to disconnect a law. We need to start today in order to protect our people from burning out.

Here is how you can get started:

  1. Go for guidelines, not rules — have conversations with everyone on the team and align the plan to make sense with your workforce. 
  2. Lead by example. Managers and leaders need to model the behaviour. We can't be checking in on vacation and then tell our employees not to. It creates an invisible pressure for everyone to check in while they are away or on the weekends, a behaviour that is unhealthy for everyone. 
  3. Support more downtime, including "meetingless" days during the week and walk and talks instead of meeting online.
  4. Be flexible. If someone wants to get something done in the day and is happy to do some work later at night because that works for them, make it OK, but ensure that they are not imposing that on others. It's all about sustainable workloads, and driving toward reasonable goals not hours. But we still need to check in on people who can't seem to disconnect. The keyword here is sustainable. 

Burnout and stress at work is on the rise and it shows no real sign of slowing. Of course, it would be better if we didn't require laws for people to do the right thing, but as we know, that isn't our reality.

Having interventions like the "right to disconnect" is, in my opinion, a necessity. If a problem is out of control, government intervention can help. 

And, this isn't a new thing, even if it seems like a response to our times. In reality, for nearly a century we've developed hundreds of laws to protect us from physical harm at work. So it makes sense to enact laws that also protect our psychological safety.


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.