These days, employers are faced with numerous challenges when it comes to recruiting, managing, and retaining employees. The evolution of the job market over the past several years has forced them to rethink their approaches and strategies. The omnipresence of technology in people's professional lives has brought with it a culture of overwork, highlighting the importance of having the right to disconnect for employee wellbeing.

This article will dive deep into this constant connectivity and how it can affect employees' stress levels and morale, as well as ways in which we can set healthy boundaries.

The importance of setting healthy boundaries between private and professional life

The need to find a balance between personal and professional life has been the subject of countless conversations, but it has taken on even greater importance since the pandemic. Lockdown, the Great Resignation, remote work, the importance of family, and a re-evaluation of work itself have brought this issue back to the forefront of people's minds.

A better work-life balance fosters a sense of belonging among employees and improves their performance. It reduces the likelihood of absences and decreased performance caused by overwork and workplace stress. It improves work happiness and employee engagement—which are key factors in retaining employees and fostering loyalty.

A double-edged sword

Typically, labour standards imposed by the government set out rules that define when an employee is "at work." They set limits on normal and maximum working hours, ensure overtime pay is provided where applicable, and determine the number and length of breaks.

As mobile technology and communication apps become more widespread, a lot of our work is not necessarily done in a physical space such as the office, or at a specific time such as working or opening hours.

Technology gives us the freedom to establish flexible working conditions. Used properly, it allows employees to find a better balance between their work and personal life, whilst still meeting urgent deadlines. For companies, a flexible work schedule can improve employee satisfaction, recruitment, and staff retention—as well as productivity. For many employers, a flexible workforce that's available at all hours means that they can meet demand and stay competitive in a globalized world.

Contract workers need to stay connected and available, not only to find work, but also to get good reviews. For these workers and freelancers, any time they spend disconnected could result in a loss of income.

The harmful effects of not disconnecting

The omnipresence of technology and mobile devices has blurred the lines between private and personal life, which can be too easily crossed. Studies have increasingly shown that frequent interruptions to employee's private lives can affect their health and morale. Emails, texts, and communications that come in at any time of day can become a serious cause of stress.

The feeling of not being able to disconnect can harm employees' ability to recover after a day at work. A study from Belkin, Becker and Conroy suggests that the anticipatory stress associated with the expectations linked to electronic communication outside working hours can lead to burnout and harm one's work-life balance.

On a similar note, the World Health Organization has now acknowledged burnout as a syndrome officially linked to chronic stress. This syndrome, which leads to decreased productivity, a lack of engagement, mistakes and absenteeism, is now considered a serious consequence of workplace stress encroaching on private life.

The current situation in Canada

The 2015 Federal Jurisdiction Workplace Survey (FJWS) found that of the companies who supply cell phones to their employees (46%), only a small number had a policy to limit the use of these devices for professional reasons outside working hours. The proportion ranged from 20% for mid-sized companies, to more than 32% in the rail transport sector. It should be noted that the survey did not include employees who used their own devices for professional purposes.

Employers' responsibility

Employees' right to disconnect is now being discussed and thought about a lot on a federal and provincial level. Trade unions, employers, researchers, and decision-makers now consider it hugely important that concrete measures are put in place to explicitly limit professional electronic communications outside working hours. Furthermore, the Canadian committees who are studying this issue agree on the following:

  • Establishing a positive work-life balance is a key aim for employers and employees
  • Employees must be paid for the work they do

To protect employees' health, some European and South American countries have already passed laws to prohibit or limit messages or emails being sent outside working hours.

Implement a disconnection policy

The Canadian government has committed to co-developing a "right to disconnect" for employees under federal regulations. In its final report on the right to disconnect, the advisory committee for the Canadian government issued a series of recommendations in 2021 to protect the right to disconnect. Among them is the implementation of a policy, by employers, to regulate electronic communications outside of working hours. This may take into account the numerous provisions already established in the Canada Labour Code regarding working hours and suitable pay. Establishing such a policy may become mandatory. Its main points could be as follows:

  • Set limits for the use of work communication devices
  • Define what constitutes working time and what doesn't, including hours spent on call or on standby, as required by the employer, and on monitoring communications
  • Explain the procedure that should be followed in an emergency situation outside working hours
  • Define the situations in which employees must be regularly available on communication devices due to operational demand

In Europe, the companies leading the way by implementing this type of policy already include Michelin, Volkswagen, and Engie.

Educate and raise awareness

In certain workplaces, being constantly available and connected is part of the organization's culture.

To highlight the challenges associated with the right to disconnect, and to reverse this trend, managers and employees often need to make an effort to ensure education and awareness. For example, at Engie, a sentence is added at the end of every email sent outside working hours: "My email does not require an immediate response."

Set an example in exercising the right to disconnect

Disconnecting is also down to the individual. "Nothing is so contagious as example." Have you and your management team established clear boundaries between work and private life? Do you send, receive, and respond to messages when you're not at work? Some self-reflection could not only improve your quality of life, but could also inspire your employees to do the same.

The right to disconnect from work is a huge challenge to all employees' health and wellbeing, regardless of level or status. Policies and regulatory measures could soon enforce the right to disconnect. However, everybody can agree that this right can only be respected fully if employees and managers exercise discipline in this "duty of disconnecting."