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Experts say Ontario’s right to disconnect law too vague to help work-life balance

'The spirit and the idea I think are fantastic. It's just, what does this actually mean?'

By Holly McKenzie-Sutter

Lise Jasmin appreciates the flexibility of her job as a community health nurse in Ottawa, but the mix of at-home and in-office work, as well as varied scheduling, makes it tough to fully disconnect when she’s off the clock.

There’s little clarity around what to do, for example, if a colleague working a later shift has a question, or whether she’s expected to respond if someone emails her at 10 p.m. 

Jasmin is eager to see how her workplace’s new policy on disconnecting from work – now required by law as of this month for all Ontario employers with 25 or more staff – will address those grey areas.

“It’s sometimes a lot of murky waters,” Jasmin said. “Having the policy in place is going to hopefully clear some of that up.”

Affected employers needed to have written policies in place by June 2. They have another 30 days after that to provide those to staff, so many workers like Jasmin are still waiting to see how they spell out expectations.

The new law has created buzz about its potential to give people peace of mind to tune out of digital communications at the end of the workday. But experts and stakeholders say it’s too vague to really move the needle on work-life balance, particularly in the era of hybrid work.

Toronto employment lawyer Deborah Hudson said issues around work-life balance are important to address as hybrid work becomes a permanent feature of many workers’ lives two years after the pandemic upended traditional norms.

But she said Ontario’s law missed an opportunity to make a real impact because it doesn’t stipulate what employers’ policies should contain. 

“The spirit and the idea I think are fantastic. It’s just, what does this actually mean?” Hudson said.

Business owners had the same question ahead of the June 2 deadline. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business conducted a survey that found 33 per cent of small businesses with 25 or more employees said they were not aware they needed to have a disconnecting policy in place by then. Only 16 per cent of businesses said they had a policy in place by the deadline. 

Julie Kwiecinski, director of provincial affairs for the CFIB, said she heard from many confused companies that they want to honour the law, but didn’t get clear guidance on how to do that.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because on the one hand, you like the flexibility because you’re not hamstrung,” she said. 

“But on the other hand, it puts a business in a really precarious position, because then they’re asking themselves, what do you have to put in this policy that will pass muster with an Employment Standards officer if they walked in the door and asked to see it?” 

The Ministry of Labour said it didn’t have data on how many eligible employers had prepared policies because they aren’t required to file them.

Employers that fail to set up a policy could be fined, but the ministry is taking an “education first approach.”

The ministry said it has communicated information on the policy through email blasts, newsletters and on the government’s website, and is planning more educational webinars.

Monte McNaughton, who introduced the legislation as labour minister, said in an interview that introducing a policy is in an employer’s best interest.

“If you want to attract and retain talent – because that’s a big challenge we have here in Ontario – you need to step up and have these policies and recognize that when people are done at the end of the day, they need to be off the clock and spending time with their families,” he said.

The Employment Standards Act – and therefore the right to disconnect policy requirement – doesn’t apply to employees of the Crown, the ministry said. But McNaughton said just being more aware of the issue has made a difference in his own office.

“As soon as we introduced the legislation, I noticed a big difference,” he said. “People were, including myself, not hitting send on that email late at night or on weekends and saving it for Monday morning.”

McNaughton said he wants to see the impacts of the law and if “further action” needs to be taken, the government will act. It will continue to amend labour laws, particularly to keep up with technological change, he said.

John Gross, who owns a climbing gym in Toronto, said it wasn’t difficult to come up with a policy, and the process helped streamline operations by forcing a close look at areas where newer hires had been calling off-shift senior employees for help.

“Having this policy in place is driving a little more training to make them a little more self-sufficient, so that they don’t need to call on people for day-to-day things,” he said. “It’s helped us realize where we need to improve a little bit of our process.”

Other experts pointed out what they see as downsides of the law. David Doorey, a professor of work law at York University, said government descriptions of the policy as a “right to disconnect” are misleading because the law doesn’t create any new rights for people. 

He noted there are no ramifications if employers ignore their own disconnect policies. It also does not protect employees from being disciplined if they ignore off-the-clock communications, which he said makes the law in its current form “basically useless.”

“The best we can say for the law is that it might cause some employers to change their way of thinking about after-hours communications and that could be helpful for some workers,” Doorey said.

Jim Stanford, economist and director of the Centre for Future Work in Vancouver, said marketing it as a “right to disconnect” could be harmful for workers and that joining a union would do more to protect people.

Digital technology is part of the blurring of work and life, Stanford said, along with the “hyper-competitive” and precarious nature of many jobs, where there is “implicit pressure” to work outside normal hours to retain contracts or be promoted.

“In the absence of clear guidelines, and clear protections for workers, this abuse of workers’ availability will get worse,” Stanford said.

– With files from Allison Jones

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2022.

Feature image – A woman is seen working on a computer at her apartment in downtown Vancouver, Thursday, December 3, 2020. A law requiring that Ontario employers of a certain size have policies around disconnecting from work took effect this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward.