Do Canadians need ‘right to disconnect’?

France introduces new regulation
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/06/2017
French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Jan. 15. France’s new law allowing workers to disconnect from work after-hours highlights the challenges of overwork. Francois Mori/POOL (Reuters)

On Jan. 1, France enacted a “right to disconnect” law that gives workers the right to ignore corporate communications after they leave the office.

The new law compels companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate email guidelines with workers. As well, employers are required to regulate email usage, allowing employees to break free from the office after hours.

So, do Canadian employees need similar legislation?

“We don’t actually have any laws like that right now, at least not as plain and as bluntly as it’s been put by the French government,” said Marc Kitay, employment lawyer at Whitten Lublin in Toronto. “It would be up to each provincial government to decide if that’s a type of law that is going to be implemented.”

A law for this is really not needed in Canada, said Barbara Bowes, president of Legacy Bowes Group in Winnipeg.

“We’ve already built in a lot of flexibility for employees through our various policies,” she said. “People don’t want government legislating everything. To put it in employment law, it’s already bogged down enough.”

It’s not the same on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, said Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton.

“The North American culture is a little different than Europe, unfortunately,” she said. “In general, it’s definitely something people are studying and looking at; we are definitely more aware of all the different duties in our lives.”

But the law in France is toothless, according to Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa.

“The French initiative gets a lot of press, but it’s not a good one,” she said. “There’s no legal requirement at all, there’s no penalties or fines and it doesn’t recognize that the organizational culture is the main thing driving use. So the government can say, ‘Well you don’t have to respond,’ but if your perception is by not responding and other people do respond, it’s going to hurt your promotability, your ability to be successful at the job, then it’s not going to matter.”

Canadian bureaucrats and ministers set poor examples anyway, she said, so the likelihood of a law being implemented might be moot.

“All levels of government are pretty bad in Canada, in terms of inappropriate use: Canadian public servants are always expected to be available because maybe the minister will have an idea. The culture in the government is ‘You have to be available because you’re serving the people, and you’re serving the minister.’”

Email addictive

Email is a big adversary against workers achieving a good work-life balance, said Duxbury.

“Our data shows that the typical manager or professional is now spending about three-and-a-half hours a day on email,” she said. “Most people extend their workday and answer emails on personal time as well.”

Receiving an email can be equated to gambling, when a person rarely wins, said Duxbury.

“For every 100 emails you get, maybe two or three are ones that you want, and so you get that little rush but you keep looking for that rush.”

Smartphones and constant connectivity make it worse but a worker should exercise self-control in responding later, she said.

“I haven’t seen it get better, I’ve only seen it get worse over the last 10 years, quite frankly.”

Recognizing the behaviour in herself, Bowes said she adjusted her expectations when sending emails after working hours.

“What I have started to do is I put ‘Monday’ (in the subject line) because my assistant was trying to scramble and do things for me on the weekend. I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t be doing this.’ I had to rap my own knuckles and do a better job.”

When it comes to requiring employees to check in and be in touch with their phones once working hours are over, mostly what comes up are overtime laws, said Kitay.

“If you are asking employees to work a set number of hours per week and then respond to emails, or still be on their phones on their off-hours, an employer can find themselves liable to be paying overtime.”

But employers do need to run their business in a certain way, said Kitay, so “as long as you’re not dealing with a very substantial or material breach, employers do have latitude to enact these types of standards.”

HR’s role

Human resources departments should be managing the issue, not the government, said Chappel.

“That’s where HR can actually help — that expectation part — to decide what works best for the company,” she said. “A lot of research talks about creating a buffer between home and work and I support that. HR can help define what those parameters are.”

HR professionals and managers should adjust their behaviour if they don’t want to become the catalyst for employee burnout. 

“HR themselves have to model the behaviour they want to see in others,” said Duxbury. “HR shouldn’t be sending ridiculous emails 24-7.”

 “For some reason, we see (texting employees) as inappropriate, but we don’t see sending emails 24-7 as inappropriate.”

But no policy is good unless upper management buys in, said Kitay.

“If you have an HR department that is capable of instituting this companywide policy of everybody checking out after a certain time, and your leadership acts this way as well, I think you can really change the culture of a company that otherwise is a little more disorganized in that respect.”

Corporate wellness

Companies should include work-life balance into an overall corporate wellness talk with workers, said Bowes.

“From a corporate philosophy perspective, you need to start talking about corporate wellness and employee wellness and work-life balance; having it incorporated as a philosophy within your organization.”

For example, managers should monitor employees who work too hard during the day, she said.

“(They should be) watching employees that are staying late and are also eating lunch at their desk; in other words, they are working right through their lunch. (We) had to put a stop to that because work is not that critical that you need to bring your lunch and sit in front of your computer and eat your soup or spaghetti.”

“If you keep working like that, you are going to get burnt out,” said Bowes.

The corporate wellness talk should also include a discussion about what managers expect from workers, said Chappel.

“It’s about managing expectations: If your boss sends you an email at 8 o’clock at night, are you expected to get back, or can you answer when you read it at 8 or 9 when you go back to the office in the morning?” said Chappel.

“If you can make those good arrangements with your supervisor, even on a one-to-one basis: ‘If you send me something at 8, are you expecting me to answer at 8:10, when I should be at home reading stories to my kids?’”

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