New provincial legislation advocates for work-life balance

Queen’s professor talks ‘right-to-disconnect’

Spitzmuller feels the legislation reaffirms a healthy lifestyle and sustainable productivity.
Credit: 
Supplied by Matthias Spitzmuller

On Oct. 25, the Ontario government introduced “right-to-disconnect” to promote work-life balance, the first law of its kind in Canada.

The proposed legislation would require workplaces with more than 25 employees to develop policies that allow workers to ‘unplug’ from their jobs outside of work hours, including setting expectations for email response times and turning on “out-of-office” notifications.

In an interview with The Journal, Matthias Spitzmuller, associate professor at the Smith School of Business, discussed the implications of right-to-disconnect.

“The right to disconnect would give workers in Ontario the rights to not have to respond to emails or other online forms of communication after official work hours,” Spitzmuller explained.

“That’s relevant because I think many of us know our respective organizations—sometimes implicit or explicit—expect emails sent in the late afternoon or the evening hours to still be replied on the same day.”

According to Spitzmuller, an expectation to promptly respond to emails regardless of when they’re sent blurs the boundaries between work and life.

Aside from setting clear work-life boundaries, Spitzmuller said the right-to-disconnect will promote a healthy lifestyle and more sustainable productivity. Research has shown logging work hours right before bedtime prevents rest, which affects productivity for the next day.

“The exposure to the wavelengths of the light associated with our cell phones as well as bringing our bodies into an active mode, as opposed to slowly shutting them down for rest and recovery for the night, goes against our natural circadian rhythm,” Spitzmuller said.  

While Spitzmuller firmly believes in the benefits of right-to-disconnect, he said it’s important to note the political motivations behind this legislation.

“I think it’s a good idea, but there have also been voices that have said it’s been politically motivated, in the sense that we’ve got an election next year and workers in Ontario will also have an important say in that election,” Spitzmuller said.

According to Spitzmuller, voters should be paying attention to where workers’ rights still fall short, regardless of whether right-to-disconnect is implemented.

“We haven’t seen positive changes when it comes to paid sick leave or minimum wage,” he added.

Recently, Conservative Premier Doug Ford cancelled a scheduled increase to a $15 minimum wage enacted in legislation from the previous Liberal government. The legislation would’ve also guaranteed workers ten paid personal emergency days.

Despite his concerns, Spitzmuller said he supports the advocacy of Monte McNaughton, Ontario Labour Minister, for work-life balance.

“I really agree that the boundaries between family and work have cleared during the pandemic,” Spitzmuller said. “If you’re working from home, the temptation to continue to do a little bit of work in the evening hours—it’s just been higher for many of us.”

From a legislative standpoint, Spitzmuller said it’s important that workplaces maintain boundaries, but there’s also a limit to how much the government can promote the work-life balance.

“It’s also up to organizations to change some of their own culture and some of their own practice […] to create healthier expectations,” Spitzmuller said.

From a cultural standpoint, Spitzmuller believes organizations need to move away from the expectation that working outside of designated hours is a sign of “excellence.”

He explained “excellent employees” are those who manage to get their work done within regular hours.

“If [employees] are organized well enough, and if they prioritize their work well enough to squeeze everything into their normal workday, that’s a sign of excellence,” Spitzmuller said.

“It would be wonderful if organizations used [right-to-disconnect] as a starting point for a discussion of how to also change that internal culture and gear it towards sustainability and sustainable workplace practices.”

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