Pulling the plug on work: How COVID-19 could complicate a ‘right to disconnect’

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It’s 10 p.m. and an email from your boss pops into your inbox. You logged off hours ago, but bolded in the email are the words: Please respond ASAP.

While there may be a natural urge to do so, Clara Cid knows she doesn’t have to.

“There is no pressure to respond,” she told Global News. “Nobody has ever told me I needed to respond.”

Read more: Canadians need legal right to disconnect, experts say

The 31-year-old digital marketer lives in Madrid, Spain where there is a “right to disconnect” — a law that gives workers the ability to step away from their jobs without penalties.

Her girlfriend, Alexia Gak-Deluen, 25, felt the same while working in marketing roles in Paris, France, where a similar law also kept her protected.

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“I remember when I started working, when I was going over hours, a manager came by and said, ‘You have to go home.'”

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To Canadians, it may feel like a far-off fantasy, but it could be closer than we think.

Federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi is leading a charge on a potential right to disconnect policy in Canada and says many lessons can be taken from countries already providing this protection.

The burnout fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic has made addressing the problem even more critical, she said.

“The pandemic has created a different working world,” she said. “The right to actually take a break, to disconnect, is now more important than ever.”

Lessons from Europe

The shift to remote work has accelerated a sense of obligation for workers to stay connected, blurring the lines between work and life, but the “always-on” culture has long been brewing.

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Countries around the world have been trying to figure out the right balance for years.

Existing “right to disconnect” laws vary by country but each generally targets the same thing: protecting a worker’s right not to respond to communications from work outside of agreed-upon hours and not be penalized or driven to burnout if they don’t.

France was the first to put it in action in 2016. Italy followed in 2017 and Spain in 2018. Germany also has made moves to protect workers’ ability to log off.

While these laws address workplace expectations in a technology-driven society, they were drafted in a pre-pandemic world. Most of the laws revolve around an in-office workday, where an employee would be physically present to an employer from, say, nine to five.

Read more: COVID-19 burnout is real — and your employer is worried about it, too

Experts say that’s the challenge going forward, not only for Canada.

Many workplaces assess a worker’s commitment based on the hours the person shows up at work, “they’re reassured that the employees are there and spend certain hours on the premises,” said Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, a professor of management at the University of Montreal (UQAM).

“Unfortunately, many managers now are replacing that assessment with assuming that they’re always available. ‘If they’re working remotely and I send them a message on Slack or Teams and they respond,’ that’s the new measure.”

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The blurred boundaries have only fanned the flames of stress throughout the pandemic, she said.

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Data backs that up.

A recent poll, conducted by Ipsos found 34 per cent of Canadians felt their physical health had worsened, while 43 per cent said their mental health had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic. The same poll found that 60 per cent of Canadians had increased their screentime as remote work, online school and virtual workouts became the norm.

And a new World Health Organization study found long work hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people a year. While it did not analyze the pandemic, researchers believe the global health crisis is only “accelerating” the trend.

One U.K. study found people who work from home did an average of six hours of unpaid overtime per week, compared to 3.6 for those who work in the place of business.

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“What we’re experiencing now is pandemic-forced telework, it’s different from regular telework,” said Ollier-Malaterre, adding that “organized” telework has “a lot of benefits.”

“But now, employees can’t signal they’re committed to working by being visible, and they feel they had to make up for that by being available all the time and they end up working more.”

Read more: These 4 Canadian cities are ranked among top 20 globally for work-life balance

Canada is taking France’s experiences into consideration as it completes a range of consultations with industry on a “made-in-Canada” solution, said Tassi.

She said the changing nature of work has created new complications and acknowledged it could get even more complicated as employers look at hybrid models of work.

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She pointed to Ireland, which in April imposed a right to disconnect law that applies equally to employees both working from home and in the office and is not arranged on what might be considered “normal working hours.” So, if you are working remotely for an Irish company but are in a different time zone, you still have the right to disconnect when your agreed-upon hours are up.

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“There is a significant amount of the population that really likes at least some aspect of remote work,” Tassi said.

“We understand that people work differently, and for some, it creates even more anxiety to hold everything off and be bombarded with emails the next day. But for others, they need that.”

Will it work in Canada?

Employment lawyers in Canada seem divided on whether it can take root here.

Some say that limits and protections are long overdue, but others like Howard Levitt say the right to disconnect would “nullify the advantage” remote work already offers — greater flexibility.

“Remote working is actually making it more untenable to have a right to disconnect,” he said.

“It comes with the territory — you are going to be bothered. And if employees start pushing back, employers are going to say, ‘Well we won’t let you work from home, come to the office.'”

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Ollier-Malaterre says that’s flawed reasoning.

“You can still have the benefits of work flexibility without the burden of feeling like you’re working 24/7,” she said.

Read more: Want to keep staff amid COVID-19? Target burnout, experts say

“Employers aren’t doing a favour to employees if they allow them to work from home, and then to make up for that favour, [expect] they should be available during the evening and weekend. That premise — that remote work is something suspicious, that we don’t trust them — that’s not fair.”

Ultimately, being able to truly disconnect will depend on the nature of the job, Levitt said, noting that there is an inherent incompatibility of flexible schedules.

If it moves forward, it will ultimately come down to the provinces, he added, as most “employment standards act in provincial jurisdictions.”

Tassi believes the federal government and provinces and territories can work “in lockstep” on a right to disconnect policy once draft recommendations are finished in the coming months.

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At the heart, it’s about ensuring worker standards aren’t “denigrated” while also retaining the benefits of remote work and digital platforms, she said.

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“There are women who are at home perhaps looking after children or looking after ageing parents. So the ability to be able to design your workday in a way that helps you carry out those extra responsibilities, it’s important we have consideration for that,” she said.

“At the same time, it’s carving a space where the volume of work isn’t everything.”

Shifting mindsets

Despite having the right to log off, Gak-Deluen said she found it nearly impossible to limit herself while in the thick of France’s lockdown.

She described it as a cascading effect — her managers found themselves having to work more, so therefore, she did too. Eventually, her company’s human resource department took action and put in a “log-in, log-off” tool, which forced employees to abide by designated working hours.

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“You were literally staying in the same place the whole time, so you could easily start work at eight and end up at ten,” she said. “I remember one manager called me out, saying, ‘Oh my god, you’re doing over 20 hours.'”

Read more: A year into pandemic, Canadians feel equally productive working from home

The workhorse ethic isn’t as ingrained in European culture as it may be in North America.

Experts like Ollier-Malaterre agree the biggest hurdle may be shifting mindsets around work ethics in Canada, but say the only way to push a cultural change and protect Canadians from burning out is to legislate, said Ollier-Malaterre.

At the same time, Gak-Deluen and Sid acknowledge that some of the onus is on them.

Cid still responds to some emails after hours, but it’s because she wants to, not because she has to.

“When I start a task, I like to finish it and not leave things hanging,” Cid said. “I think my work-life balance could be better, but not because anybody has told me to adjust my own approach to work. I’m respected by my jobs, basically.”

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