Ontario Government Grants Workers Right to Disconnect

By Catherine Skrzypinski December 21, 2021
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As many people work from home to avoid the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario government has passed legislation to help workers disconnect from their employment responsibilities after work hours. The right-to-disconnect provision takes effect June 2, 2022.

Ontario is now the first jurisdiction in Canada to establish policies that prioritize workers' mental health, along with a healthier work/life balance. "This is a symbolic shift toward employee well-being … especially to prevent employees from being reachable 24/7," said Flora Vineberg, a lawyer at SpringLaw in Toronto.

The pandemic has been a challenging time for both employers and employees, said Lisa Goodfellow, an attorney with Miller Thomson LLP in Toronto. "For some who are working remotely, the lack of physical separation between work and home has made it harder to disconnect."

The employee-friendly amendment will require employers in Ontario with 25 or more employees to have a written policy giving workers the right to disconnect from their job at the end of their workday. Bill 27, the Working for Workers Act 2021, defines disconnecting from work as not engaging in work-related communications—including e-mails, telephone calls, video calls, and sending and reviewing messages—to be free from the performance of work. Remote workers "feel like they can't get away from the office with modern technology serving as an electronic leash," said Neena Gupta, an attorney with Gowling WLG in Waterloo, Ontario. "I've heard from a worker: 'I don't work from home; I simply sleep in the office.' "

The Ontario government is following in the footsteps of France, Spain and Portugal, which give employees the legal right not to engage in work-related activities and communication after work. The Canadian government is also exploring the option to prohibit federal employees from responding to phone calls, e-mails and texts from their supervisor or colleagues off-hours.

"Ontario has been a leader in employment and labor law legislation," Gupta said. "This is an opportune time for this bill to come up. [The province] could pave the way for the right to disconnect across Canada."

Downsides of Disconnecting

Opponents say the legislation might reduce productivity, as managers will have less oversight of when employees are actually working, Vineberg noted. In addition, workers who truly disconnect might be passed over for promotions or viewed as lower-performing employees. This may disproportionately affect the careers of women who opt to disconnect to tend to household chores and caregiving, while their male counterparts choose to work additional hours. Women spend 33 percent more time on household chores and caregiving responsibilities compared with men, according to the government of Canada.

Some employees do not have the option to disconnect.

Occupations like agriculture, construction, health care, manufacturing, hospitality, law, law enforcement and transportation could be exempt, Goodfellow said, as they are covered by provisions of Ontario's Employment Standards Act 2000. Currently, it is unclear whether there will be employer and employee exceptions under the right-to-disconnect policy, Goodfellow stated.

Employers, HR Should Drive Culture Shift

Bill 27 does not provide guidance on what a right-to-disconnect policy must include, Goodfellow said. Therefore, employers and HR professionals will be tasked with reviewing a policy between Jan. 1 and March 1 each year that accounts for business needs while complying with legislation.

In addition to giving workers the right to disconnect, senior leadership should also refrain from making demands outside of business hours if they are not time-sensitive, Goodfellow said.  

Vineberg recommended employers effectively implement and enforce policies in a decentralized workplace by:

  • Encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they aren't working.
  • Setting clear expectations about response times for e-mails.
  • Limiting hours employees spend in virtual meetings or on virtual platforms and chats.
  • Articulating expectations for hybrid-work models regarding when and why employees must report to work in person.

"Employers need to be conscious about allowing employees to disconnect or else they will pay for it later on with absenteeism," Gupta said.

Some additional ways staff can be encouraged to protect their mental well-being include:

  • Taking their earned vacation.
  • Making time in their day for physical and mental self-care.
  • Tapping into fitness and wellness programs.

HR will have to keep track of employee concerns, ensure alignment with remote and hybrid-work policies, and manage reliance on technology platforms for supervision, Vineberg said.

"HR will end up drafting and implementing disconnect-from-work policies," Gupta concluded. "They will be key in rolling out communications strategies to all workers in Ontario."

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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