Right to Disconnect in Ontario: What could these policies look like?

Many Ontario employers will soon have to craft policies detailing their employees rights to disconnect from the workplace outside of business hours, but as some of the first legislature of its kind in Canada, many businesses still have questions about what those policies might look like.

In late November, the Ontario government passed the ‘Working for Workers Act.’ The act banned non-compete agreements, enforced mandatory licensing of recruiters and temp agencies and aims to provide protection to immigrants during the employment recruitment process.

It also requires employers at companies with 25 or more employees to craft written policies outlining expectations on disconnecting from the workplace. Employers have until June 2 to craft their policies this year.

Ontario’s Minister of Labor, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton says the act, and more specifically the right to disconnect policies, is meant to “rebalance the scales and ensure that workers have more support.”

“This particular piece of legislation was created in response to the increasingly blurred lines between work and home [and] it’s about ensuring that every worker in Ontario knows that family time comes first, ”McNaughton told CTV News Toronto in an interview.

WHAT COULD THE POLICIES INCLUDE?

McNaughton said the wording in the section of the act pertaining to the right to disconnect was left “deliberately flexible” to allow employers to “tailor their policies to their specific workplace,” but reiterated the need for Ontario businesses to understand that when their employees are “Off the clock, they’re off the clock.”

While the act may have been left deliberately flexible in wording, it defines “disconnecting from work” as “not engaging in work-related communications.”

This includes responding to emails, telephone calls, video calls or the sending or reviewing of other messages. Policies should include guidance on how to navigate these communications outside of business hours, the ministry said.

Andrea Bartlett, director of human resources at Humi, a Toronto-based HR software company, says the organization is in the late stages of finalizing its right to disconnect policy.

She said Humi’s policy was written with three concepts in mind.

The first was identifying and addressing burnout, Bartlett said.

“It’s less so about a policy and more so about how we can recognize when people are burnt out and what supports are in place.”

The second part aims to highlight that clocking 40 hours of work a week at Humi is not necessarily required.

“It’s more about the output and quality of work,” she said. “As opposed to measuring the number of hours to that 40-hour work week, we’re measuring output.”

The last part requires the company to define its “core hours.” This means defining clear hours of operations and providing expectations on how “clients can expect response and feedback” during that time, Bartlett said.

BURNOUT LEVELS RISING?

A recent community well-being report conducted in Southwestern Ontario by YMCA of The Three Rivers found that 73 percent of working adults in the region are experiencing work burnout.

Moreover, a 2021 survey by human resources group Adecco found that 40 per cent of 1,000 Canadians surveyed reported suffering from burnout or working too hard over the previous year.

Natalie Wainewright, who works full-time in an office position at a Toronto-based company, says it can be difficult for employees to “switch off from work mode and maintain boundaries.”

Wainewright, who has been working from home since the onset of the pandemic, said her at-home work environment can make it hard to maintain a clear separation between the job and personal time.

“It does require more of a conscious effort to maintain the balance,” she said.

When asked what employers should include in their potential policies, Wainewright said that workers should have “clear expectations of hours and the ability to disconnect.”

“Being able to have paid time off, help accessing resources and management that is willing to accommodate employee needs are also critical, in my opinion,” she said.

McNaughton acknowledges the labor landscape in Ontario has changed – and that legislation needs to follow suit.

“The pandemic has changed everything,” he said.

“We’re not going back to where we were before COVID-19 and I want to make sure our labor laws are keeping up.”

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