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'Right to disconnect' from work has major support, says fed report

Worker working from home on phone and laptop at same time
The federal government is considering whether changes to modernize labour standards should include new rules allowing employees to ignore email outside of work hours.   
As part of an extensive consultation exploring what a modern set of labour standards might look like for the 900,000 workers in federally-regulated private sector industries, the federal government published a report summarizing the feedback they received. The report explains more than 90 per cent of Canadians surveyed for the consultation believe employees should have the right to not respond to communication outside work hours. While 79 per cent stated employers should have policies to limit the use of work-related technology outside of working hours.
Labour organizations and advocacy groups also expressed overwhelming support for the “right to disconnect”.
On the other hand, employers said constant access to employees is required to facilitate operations in the 24/7 economy and formalizing the “right to disconnect” would be a legislative over-step.
“While many concerns were raised during our consultations, one message was clear: Canadians want more work-life balance,” explained Federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, Patty Hajdu.
Clearly, employees believe and a growing body of research suggests the “right to disconnect” is an important means to achieve this end.   

Negative impacts for workers, families and businesses

More than one in four Canadian workers say their daily lives are highly stressful, according to Statistics Canada. And more than 60 per cent of those “stressed” report work-related issues as the main problem. For many, this includes constantly monitoring and responding to email and other forms of communication outside of normal working hours.
In fact, this source of stress is on the rise. A 2017 survey of American workers found 54 per cent say they receive more email outside of normal business hours than three years ago.
Research is also giving us food for thought about how we might consider the way we read and react to emails and other forms of communication. A Canadian study published in 2015 found people felt less stressed when they checked email less often.
Studies have also found people who respond to work-related communications at night had poor quality of sleep and were less engaged the next day. This has obvious impacts on the health and well-being of workers along with productivity at work.
2018 study added additional concern suggesting even the mere expectation placed on workers to monitor communications after regular work hours can add to their growing burden of stress. This same study also found these expectations had a negative impact on family members. “Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being,” explains co-author and Virginia Tech associate professor William Becker.
“Efforts to manage these expectations are more important than ever, given our findings that employees’ families are also affected by these expectations.” 

Growing movement to disconnect

Federal labour standards, outlined in the Canada Labour Code, were developed in the 1960’s long before advent of email, instant messaging and smart phones. They are currently devoid of rules addressing constant contact with work. These standards also fail to establish minimum time off before returning to work—time essential for rest and achieving work-life balance.  
The “right to disconnect” is gaining traction in terms of workplace and regulatory interventions. 
Back in 2012, German-based Volkswagen responded to worker complaints and agreed to establish a policy limiting the ability to send email to workers outside of regular hours of work. Another German-based automaker, Daimler, introduced measures in 2014 to delete email received by workers who are on vacation. 
Germany’s labour ministry established guidelines in 2013 banning its own managers from contacting staff after work hours except in emergencies.  
The French government also took decisive steps in 2016 adopting a law giving workers the “right to disconnect” from communication devices outside of business hours. Employers are required to consult with employees to establish specific parameters. 
More recently, in March, 2018, a New York City councillor introduced a bill that would make it unlawful for private employers with 10 or more employees to require their employees to check and respond to email or other electronic communications during non-work hours.
Also in March, a private members bill was introduced in Quebec calling for employers to consult with workers and adopt a policy on the “right to disconnect”.
How the Canadian federal government responds to this important issue will soon become clearer, as the government has signalled it will introduce Canada Labour Code amendments this fall.

Related WHSC resources

For our part, Workers Health & Safety Centre continues to assist workplace parties through training programs and information services aimed at raising awareness about hours of work, work stress and many other factors hindering the pursuit of work-life balance and healthier work.

To learn more:
Call:    1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak with a training services representative