OHS Canada Magazine

Always on: Supporting the need for employees to disconnect


Photo: BrittaKokemor/iStock/Getty Images Plus

After six months at her new job, Amira’s office went completely remote. At first, she welcomed being able to work from home and reclaim the personal time she used to spend commuting. The flexibility, however, seemed to come at a price.

To show her supervisors she’s just as productive at home as she was at the office, Amira makes sure she’s always available to answer calls and responds quickly to messages and emails – even if they come in well outside her working hours. With no clear separation between her work life and home life, Amira struggles to be present with her friends and family.

She’s always a little fatigued, which makes it nearly impossible to get through her task list before her workday ends.

Stories like Amira’s are increasingly common in Canadian workplaces. To avoid the stress, fatigue, and burnout that come with the pressure of being “always on,” workers need support from their employers to fully disconnect from work.

What prevents workers from disconnecting?

According to a Privy Council Office Survey from August 2020, 43 percent of workers in Canada check their work email outside of standard working hours. One in three answer work emails, calls or texts, and 28 percent perform other work-related duties. Many cite being available to supervisors and stakeholders as an expectation that comes with their job. Others send texts and emails in their personal time to manage a heavy workload, or due to irregular working hours.

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Not being able to disconnect for a sustained period of time can lead to burnout, depression, and anxiety.

There is also a concern that employers could reward workers who don’t disconnect with bonuses and promotions. These rewards unfairly disadvantage workers who are unable to remain connected due to family responsibilities, health reasons, or because they were not provided the tools to work remotely.

The need to disconnect

Disconnecting from work means having the ability to stop working and not feel obligated to respond to work issues outside of defined working hours. Having uninterrupted personal time and space away from work stressors allows your body and mind the opportunity to relax and recover.

Depending on the nature of the work, it can be easy or difficult to disconnect. Workers who are unable to work when outside the workplace (e.g., those in manufacturing or construction) may have an easier time leaving their work at the workplace. Workers that can easily continue working from outside the workplace (e.g., sales, finance, consultants, technical specialists, service providers, etc.) may find it harder to disconnect.

If properly implemented, the digital transformation of the workplace can have a positive effect on the quality of life of workers. Employers can promote the disconnection from work as part of their corporate culture and health and wellness programs. Additionally, employers can provide training and education on the importance of disconnecting from work and encourage and model these behaviours. If properly implemented, a workplace health and wellness program can have a positive effect on the quality of life of workers and help foster a healthy workplace culture.

What the law says

Last year, Ontario became the first province to pass laws to help employees disconnect from work. Effective June 2022, the new act requires workplaces with 25 or more people to have a written policy about employees’ rights to disconnect at the end of the workday.

Moreover, provincial, territorial, and federal governments have laws that require employers to provide time off from work, unless the occupation is exempt (e.g., police officer) or there are extenuating circumstances. Some employment standard laws include protections for workers to have time off work on a per day and per week basis unless other arrangements have been made (e.g., minimum 8 hours off work per day and one period of 24 consecutive hours off work per week). Any additional time worked might need to be compensated as prescribed by law or according to a collective bargaining agreement.

Some jurisdictions specifically state that “on-call” or “stand-by” workers are not considered to be working. However, if the worker is called in, they are considered to be working and must be compensated for their time. In other situations, hours and terms of work may be negotiated in contracts or collective agreements with unions.

Create a culture that supports disconnecting

Even if the “right to disconnect” is not a law, employers can still take steps towards creating and supporting a workplace culture that encourages disconnecting.

To get started, develop a policy on disconnecting that clearly defines the boundaries between work time and non-work time. The policy should set expectations for response times to non-essential emails sent after established hours and how working across different time zones will be addressed. Consider how disconnecting impacts emergencies and other safety related issues and include how labour or employment standards protections will be respected.

By setting and communicating clear expectations, employers can help protect the health and well-being of their workers while helping to create a more equitable work environment for everyone. Organizations can also implement ‘quiet hours’ to reduce and discourage emails or meetings outside of established hours. If an email is sent after hours, make it clear that a response is not expected outside of established hours. If a worker is regularly working outside of the established hours, have a conversation and offer additional support, as this may be an indication of excessive workload, time management, or other concerns.

Managers and supervisors can lead by example by signing off when their working hours are over and sharing how they transition from work time to personal time. Not only does this demonstrate the organization’s commitment to protecting the health and well-being of employees – it shows that disconnecting isn’t a barrier to advancement opportunities.

Help Workers Disconnect from Work

  • Lead by example.
  • Promote disconnecting at the end of the day as part of your corporate culture.
  • Provide awareness of work-life balance skills as part of workplace health and wellness programs.
  • Do not send, and instruct workers not to respond to, work communications during their time off.
  • Avoid rewarding workers who continue to work outside of their established hours.
  • Support and encourage workers, supervisors, and managers in their efforts to disconnect through policies, wellness initiatives, and education.

Employers and employees can support this initiative by not routinely calling or emailing outside the established working hours and by indicating when a communication doesn’t need their immediate attention.
Disconnecting can start with something as simple as an end-of-workday ritual, like heading out for a walk immediately after shutting down your computer. If you have enough space at home, create a separate working room or area, and resist the urge to enter that space when the workday is over.

The rise of mobile technology and alternate work arrangements have opened the doors to unlimited access to work, and pressure to continue working outside of required hours. Like Amira, the boundaries between being at work and not at work have become increasingly blurred for many workers. Promoting the right to disconnect can help everyone work toward a safer, healthier, happier, and more productive workplace.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness. Visit www.ccohs.ca for more safety tips.