Employee Engagement
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Could “Right to Disconnect” legislation be effective in preventing burnout?

By Zoltan Vadkerti


A British company was recently ordered by a French court to pay $90,000 for failing to respect the rights of one of its employees to disconnect from work. The story made national headlines as the ruling was the first of its kind since the much debated “Right to Disconnect” law became effective in France, on January 1, 2017.


Inspired by France

As part of a massive labour-code revamp, the Trudeau government is currently assessing the possibility of providing federally-regulated workers with the right to ignore work-related texts and emails after work hours through a “right to disconnect” law; similar to what France has in place. Although the new regulation would concern only federally-regulated workers who represent six per cent of the entire workforce, it is a development that raises a few eyebrows in the Canadian HR community.

The dispute over the curtailing of out-of-working-hours messaging is certainly not just a French or Canadian phenomenon. Similar regulations have already been introduced in Italy and the Philippines, and some are planned in Belgium and the Netherlands. Some of the most prominent corporate groups, such as Volkswagen or Daimler, have also taken similar initiatives to support their employees in disconnecting from technology while not at work. Most recently, the “right to disconnect” discussion has started to receive national attention in the U.S. as well, due to a bill put forward by the New York City Council.

While the digital aspect of the 21st-century workplace is openly debated, can top-down regulations and financial penalties for non-compliance be the solution for problems that might have its origin in a wider organizational context?


What is at stake?

In a recent countrywide Canadian survey by Insights West, 56 per cent of respondents said that work is either “probably” or “definitely” taking precedence over their lives and more than a third reported that work was following them around when they were with their families or friends. Indeed, in a world of smartphones and non-stop connectivity, it is getting increasingly difficult for employees to step away from their emails or workplace chat apps outside of usual business hours. This can lead to unpaid overtime, which, often coupled with an increased level of workplace stress and workload, may result in burnout, anxiety or depression. No wonder the new right to disconnect proposal is supported by four out of five Canadians working full-time. That’s an impressive proportion of the working population. 

The million-dollar question is: Will the right to disconnect law improve the health and wellbeing of workers? Will it have an impact on their engagement at work? What’s more; how will the law be interpreted in companies and positions where employees are required to be online even outside of regular working hours? On the one hand, the answers lie in the nuances of the potential future regulation. On the other, it gets back to whether the problems in a work setting are the results of deliberate organizational policies or are they a breakdown in management practices.


The importance of job design

One of the primary management tools that can reduce the harmful effect of the always-on work culture is job design. It requires organizing the daily tasks, systems and support structures around jobs so that employees feel a certain level of control, identity, autonomy and significance. It also includes the questions of job variety, the establishment of a well-functioning feedback culture and the arrangement of interdependence between colleagues. 

The way a job is designed has a huge impact on the interference of work on the personal life – and the interference of life events on work – but also the mutual enrichment of both spheres. If tasks are not allocated efficiently among coworkers and one job contains a lot of responsibilities, this employee will be overburdened and most likely will have to work beyond their regular working hours. 


Now is the time to start thinking about disconnecting

The right to disconnect law may sound like a very simple concept, one that only requires the ability to make sensible decisions and be reasonable, but it has proven arduous for many European companies to implement in practice. Failure to do so could lead to disputes, or in the most extreme cases, lawsuits. 

Even though legislation has yet to be adopted in Canada, there are many simple steps organizations can already take to determine if they could benefit from a right to disconnect policy. Start by pondering over the following questions: How are electronic communication devices used by your staff? Do you work at a company that doesn’t generally expect its employees to reply to after-hours and weekend emails? Do you receive or have to reply to late night texts? Even without such legislation, minimizing the risk of employees experiencing burnout or sustained stress due to over-connectedness will benefit them and the entire organization.

Zoltan Vadkeerti is the executive director of The WorkLife Hub.




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