Right-to-disconnect legislation welcome, but experts say workers won't benefit equally
Legislation is 'nice as a public relations move,' says employment lawyer
With many Canadians still working from home thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, proposed legislation that would offer workers a right-to-disconnect from the office is welcome — but experts warn it could be ineffective without clear rules and incentives.
Replying to work emails after hours is seen as part of the job for many Canadians, but the Ontario government has proposed legislation that would update labour laws and set boundaries around work and leisure time, among other changes.
The legislation would require companies with 25 or more employees to develop policies that require workers to stop working once their day is done.
The federal Labour Code currently does not address limiting work-related electronic communications, such as email, after quitting time.
"This is an issue that's been really highlighted because of the pandemic," said Monte McNaughton, Ontario's minister of labour, while announcing the proposed legislation. "The lines between family time and work time have been blurred. I think all of us have faced challenges over the last couple of years."
But according to employment lawyer Lior Samfiru, the proposed rules are short on details — and questions about enforcement remain unanswered.
"It's nice as a public relations move and not beyond that," he told Cross Country Checkup.
"Employers are going to implement these policies and they're going to post them and then people are going to forget about them."
Without enforcement of such legislation, Samfiru, a partner at the law firm Samfiru Tumarkin in Toronto, worries that those who opt to disconnect — while their colleagues remain available night and day — could be affected negatively when it comes to future promotions.
Instead, Samfiru would like to see overtime policies updated to ensure workers who are unable to disconnect are compensated accordingly, either by pay or additional vacation time.
"Employers will have a financial incentive to make sure that employees do disconnect," he said.
Change workplace culture, not legislation: expert
Concerns about responding to emails after hours shouldn't be addressed in isolation, according to remote work expert and author Alexandra Samuel.
"How do we also update our employment standards to reflect a decentralized workplace?" she said.
It's a problem that shouldn't be dealt with through legislation, she argued, but rather by shifting workplace culture.
That could include setting clear expectations for email response time and limiting hours that employees spend in virtual meetings or on chat platforms, like Slack.
For those with hybrid work schedules, specific guidelines on when and why employees are meant to work in the office, instead of at home, are essential.
"It's less about specifying what employers will be required to provide and more about specifying where employers will be required to be transparent, documented and equitable in their approach to all employees," Samuel said.
Samfiru also notes that the right-to-disconnect policies will benefit employees in certain industries more than others.
Employees expected to engage with clients and stakeholders might feel more pressure to work after hours than someone working in a factory, for example.
WATCH | Ontario proposes right-to-disconnect legislation for workers:
Don't like late-night email? Don't send them
In the absence of right-to-disconnect policies, Samuel says that workers can take a few simple steps to help them keep their work between the hours of 9 and 5.
She suggests setting up email rules that provide notifications for messages only from key individuals — a CEO, director or VIP client, for example — that may require an immediate response.
"You create a mail rule that says, if this person emails me, send a text message notification to my phone," suggested Samuel.
"If I don't get that text message notification, I don't need to look at email."
Keeping separate email accounts for work and personal correspondence can also help reduce the desire to check your inbox after hours.
Lastly, Samuel recommends leading by example: if you don't want to receive email late in the evening, don't send colleagues emails late in the evening.
"If you like writing emails at 9 p.m., use a scheduling tool to set them to go out the next morning," she said.
Written by Jason Vermes with files from Matt Meuse, Sophia Harris and CBC News.