The Right to Disconnect

One Canadian insurance company has told staff not to plan meetings outside of a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday to encourage staff to disconnect from work. "I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and people will not schedule a meeting with me between 8 and 9 a.m. because that's when I'm giving her breakfast, changing her and dropping her off to daycare," Danish Yusuf, the chief executive at Zensurance, told CBC.

Discussion about the “right to disconnect” is often taken to mean workers should be able to enjoy their time outside of work hours without being expected to respond to work-related messages. Compared to 20 years ago, the shift reflects changing digital technologies like smartphones that make it easier to contact employees once they leave the office, along with an increase in the number of people working from home. In a 2017 report, 75% of British employees surveyed felt under pressure to respond to emails outside of work hours.

In Ontario, a law on the right to disconnect takes effect on June 2, 2022.

How this affects worker health

The impact of technology on employee health can be negative, according to Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK, a private healthcare company: “It is important that employees who feel ruled by their inbox are encouraged and feel empowered to take a break, as a sustained feeling that you are not in control of your life can lead to stress, exhaustion, anxiety and depression.”

Receiving late-night messages from a manager could interfere with an employee’s sleep patterns, which could contribute to weight gain, increased cortisol levels, and an increased dementia risk. Feeling compelled to reply to calls, emails and texts at all hours could also negatively impact the relationships that staff build with their family and friends.

In general, studies have shown that constant connectivity harms brain functionality (though that’s true whether employees check work messages or game scores). But the cumulative effect can be stressful. O ne U.S. college student claimed to receive over 200 daily notifications on the phone from programs like Slack and Discord: “The amount of notifications makes it so that I am constantly engaged with work, and I don’t really get a break ever,” Chris Cha told the UCSD Guardian.

As the Canadian government Final Report of the Right to Disconnect Advisory Committee stated, both physical and mental health can be affected by constantly being “on”: “ Cognitive and emotional overload from “hyper-connectivity” has been noted to have negative effects. This includes a sense of fatigue due to the “psychosocial risk” of being constantly connected.”

What employers should consider

Smart managers will think about ways to promote a good work-life balance for employees, in part because long hours of work can lead to burnout among employees, while better work-life balance could actually increase productivity.

Other than creating a right to disconnect policy for your company and making expectations known to employees, what more can a manager do? One idea for small- and medium-sized is to have regular check-in meetings between manager and employee to give staff a chance to say if they feel they’re able to disconnect.

In many fields, working remotely seems likely to become a permanent state. Companies that can develop healthy policies for work-life balance (including the boss’s go-ahead to ignore a non-urgent text or email) will be better positioned to hire and retain top talent.


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