When the pandemic sent many workers home, the line between the personal and professional became increasingly blurred. It’s difficult, after all, to have a clear delineation between home and the office if home is the office and the office is home.
But that uncertainty around work/life balance — something everyone seems to want and value, but few seem able to actually achieve — predates the pandemic. The exhausted executive who sleeps with their iPhone on their pillow is a trope for a reason; technology has enabled us to do our work from anywhere — but that also means we can do our work everywhere, at any hour, because there’s always more work to do.
Many workers are always on, always connected. In a system that prioritizes productivity above all else, staying late is seen as evidence of commitment and dedication. So, too, is answering emails at 9:30 p.m.
And so, on its face, Ontario’s new Working for Workers Act, which passed on Nov. 30, is an intriguing Canadian initiative. The legislation requires workplaces with 25 or more employees implement written policy regarding "disconnecting from work," which mostly means not engaging in workplace communications outside of work hours.
Employers will be required to be transparent about their right-to-disconnect policies, and prospective employees will be able to inquire about such policies during the interview process.
Employers will be required to be transparent about their right–to–disconnect policies, and prospective employees will be able to inquire about such policies during the interview process.
"The best employers will ensure that there is work-life balance, because that’s going to be a competitive advantage for them to retain and attract workers," said Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton.
Ontario is the first Canadian province to implement such a law, but there is precedent for "right-to-disconnect" legislation. In 2016, France passed a law with wording similar to that in the Ontario legislation. This past summer, the Supreme People’s Court of China ruled the so-called "996" policy — a practice of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week, widely normalized in tech — is illegal.
Several other countries, including Italy, Spain and Ireland, have also introduced right-to-disconnect legislation.
Laws such as these mark an important moment in the evolution of the employer/employee relationship. But is work/life balance something that can be legislated? Such laws risk becoming little more than occupational-agenda theatre; few will be inclined to exercise their right to disconnect if the work culture undergirding it is not supportive of such efforts.
True work/life balance can only happen if companies make it a shared belief, value and priority. Laws — especially vague, mostly hands-off ones — are at very best suggestions or guidelines. What actually needs to happen has less to do with outlawing email after 6 p.m and more to do with changing the deeply entrenched cultural norms around work, which necessarily includes ideas about performance, productivity and corporate structures, as well as the role work plays in our lives.
What right-to-disconnect legislation can do, however, is prompt workplaces to evaluate their own operations and identify areas for opportunity and improvement. It might look like a "no emails after x" policy, but it also might look like a hybrid remote/in-office model to promote flexibility, or managers leading by example and encouraging disconnected weekends, vacations and paid time off.
Burnout and chronic stress are systemic issues that need to be addressed at the institutional level. Offering a free meditation app, or providing overburdened staff with a laminated card with instructions for a breathing exercise on it, isn’t going to cut it, especially for an incoming generation of workers who have radically different expectations about what work/life balance should look like.