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The ‘Right to Disconnect’: Advice for After-Hours Workplace Communications

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  • Writer's picturePeter Harris

Updated: Mar 25

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Does this sound familiar? Are you getting crickets when you message an employee? Why aren’t employers getting a swift response when they contact staff members after hours? Maybe it is because their employee has just worked an 8-hour shift, and they have logged off for the day.

In today’s ever-connected world, where we are almost always online and our smartphones are seldom out of reach, it may sound strange to think of people being unreachable. However, the pressure to be always available, partly brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to advances in communications technology, has many people asking for clearer boundaries between work and personal time. Governments are starting to introduce legislation to reflect these demands.

The rise of smartphones and mobile connectivity, high-speed internet, and innovations in video conferencing software have all made working remotely much more seamless than could have been imagined a decade ago. These developments served us well during the pandemic when a great many people found themselves suddenly working from home on a full-time basis. This allowed companies to stay in business despite the lockdowns and physical distancing requirements.

But there is a downside. When your boss sends you a quick query by email in the evening, and they know you have an always-connected smartphone, so you will see their question, are you obligated to respond immediately even though the workday is done?

Employees used to be able to unplug from work at the end of their shift, but in recent years, many have felt a steady increase in pressure to continue communicating with work after hours. Many workers check the notifications on their work smartphones and take their laptops with them on vacation. Answering emails, checking voicemail, and returning calls in the evenings and on weekends have become standard practice for many.

The ‘Right to Disconnect’ Laws

The lines between work and personal time are even more obscured for those employees who continue to work remotely. When you work from home, you are also living where you work.

The trouble with seamlessly connecting with work at any time from wherever you are is that actually disconnecting from work can become a challenge. This is why the new rules impacting workplace hours and staff availability for communications have been dubbed “Right to Disconnect” laws.

Employees often feel they could risk disciplinary action at work if they ignore an after-hours communication from their boss. Right to Disconnect laws aim to mitigate those fears. While such laws have been in place in regions such as Ireland and France for several years, Ontario recently became the first region in Canada to enact such legislation.

Ontario’s law defines the right to disconnect as employees “‘disconnecting from work’ means not engaging in work-related communications, including emails, telephone calls, video calls or the sending or reviewing of other messages, so as to be free from the performance of work.”

The law doesn’t specify which hours should be considered work versus personal, recognizing that this would be impractical. For example, while the traditional 9:00 am to 5:00 pm workday still works for plenty of companies, many businesses and specific jobs function outside of those shifts. For example, professionals in certain fields, such as healthcare workers, emergency first responders, media professionals, and those working with teams and clients across time zones, will always involve some degree of shift work or being ‘on-call’ outside of normal hours.

Instead, Ontario’s legislation requires that companies create a policy to outline the rules for their staff disconnecting from work, including clear availability expectations in the employment agreement.

The aim is to remove ambiguity and free employees from fear of reprisals for not working additional hours on their own time.

The advantages of this are that the well-defined guidelines can allow staff to unplug from work at the end of their shift, reduce stress levels, and increase work-life balance. 

How to unplug from work

tips on how to successfully unplug from work

Turn off your work phone

If you have a smartphone that your employer has provided you for checking emails and taking calls on the go, consider shutting it off at the end of your shift. Or, at the very least, set it to ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode so that you are not constantly hearing notification sounds and seeing blinking lights pressuring you to check the latest messages.

Set auto-responses

Have an end-of-day voicemail that says you are out of the office for the evening and will check messages and follow up on the next workday. You can similarly set an out-of-office reply on your email that automatically lets correspondents know that you are not reading their emails when you are off work and setting expectations for when you will be back at your desk.

Separate your devices

Many people use their work devices for their personal life as well. Their work laptop might be their only computer or the smartphone provided by their employer could be their only phone. Try not to do this. There are huge privacy implications to using work devices for personal communications. Even after hours, on your own time, everything you do on equipment owned by your company can be monitored and tracked.

Plus, this further blurs the lines between work and personal life. Turn off your work laptop and put it away at the end of the day.

It is easier to unplug from your job if the device you use in your personal time doesn’t have immediate access to all of your work contacts, messages, and files (and your employer doesn’t have access to your personal communications and online activities.)

Don’t be a stickler

Many workers don’t see a problem with doing some occasional online shopping, checking their personal email accounts, or using social media while they are at work. These activities can be done quickly and provide a short break from work between projects. Most employers don’t concern themselves with these activities or crack down on staff for a few lost minutes of productivity. As a trade-off, most workers aren’t upset about answering a work call or replying to an email on their own time either. The blurred lines between work and personal time imply some give and take between employers and staff.

How to support employee wellness

An Academy of Management study unveiled a clear link between after-hours email expectations and emotional exhaustion, negatively impacting employees’ work-life balance. This is even more prevalent now than ever, in fact, research conducted by The Office Group found that the average worker is most likely to experience career burnout by the age of 32. Long hours of work are taking their toll on an even greater number of people, with 58 percent of respondents blaming the extended workday and lack of personal time for leaving them feeling burnt out. To help ensure your employees stay well and unplug, try these tidbits of advice.

policies that make employees happier

Clearly outline your policies and expectations

The best place to do this is in your employee handbook and ensure all employees understand and know your policies. Be sure to implement policies about email or text communications after hours, including when to send and receive work-related messages. 

Encourage employees to be less available during off-hours

The best way to do this is to lead by example and give them the above ideas to unplug from work. Describe the benefits of having a healthier work-life balance and how stress is reduced and job satisfaction and performance increases. 

Be mindful of how you may favour others

Many managers are still likely to favour those team members who are highly responsive and put in extra hours to deliver a project on time or make them selves available in an emergency. Although great employees, favouring them or thanking them in front of other employees will only set the standard for the need for them to work longer hours. 

To conclude, part of the balance in work-life balance is the mutual understanding of hours of availability between workers and their bosses. Both sides need to be reasonable and flexible and respectful of each other. 

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