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Employment & Labour

Right to disconnect could benefit employers, employees

A legislated “right to disconnect” could yield benefits for employers, Toronto employment lawyer Sean O’Donnell tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The CBC recently reported that the federal government, as part of a revamp of the Canada Labour Code (CLC), is considering its own version of a 2016 law that gave workers in France the right to ignore job-related emails during off-hours.

If a law were to pass, O’Donnell, principal of SJO Legal Professional Corporation, says it would apply to only a small portion of Canada’s workers, since the CLC only applies to federally regulated industries, such as banking and telecommunications, but that it could form a template for provinces to follow.

“There are some very good reasons to have a right to disconnect, and I think it could really improve people’s health,” he says. “If you’re in a nine-to-five job, and you see a work email on your smartphone after work hours, you’re going to feel like you have to respond, regardless of whether it is actually required.

“We always hear about stress, depression and burnout, and if there were limits put on when you’re expected to work outside of regular working hours, there could be benefits to employers in terms of less sick days, and fewer claims for failure to accommodate mental health issues,” O’Donnell adds.

The French law applies to companies with more than 50 employees and requires them to create policies to limit work-related technology usage outside the office. But O’Donnell says the different work cultures in the two countries may prove a barrier to its adoption here.

“I can imagine a great deal of resistance coming from the 'old-guard' crowd with more traditional views of work and the sacrifices you have to make,” he says.

While some employers already have policies in place to limit off-hours work, O'Donnell says, "There’s always going to be that expectation, particularly in professional fields, that you need to be available at all times."

According to the CBC, a year-long consultation on changes to the CLC revealed a predictable split over the prospect of a right-to-disconnect law between labour groups, who welcomed the idea, and employer groups, where at least one described it as “legislative overstep.”   

“While many concerns were raised during our consultations, one message was clear: Canadians want more work-life balance," Labour Minister Patty Hajdu said in a statement to the news outlet.

Whatever the final decision on the specifics of any new legislation, O’Donnell says the CLC is long overdue for an update.

“We’re talking decades since any major changes were made,” he says. “It’s still predicated on a world where everyone works set hours in a full-time job with benefits. But that’s really not the world we live in anymore.”

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