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'Right to Disconnect' introduced as part of 2024 federal budget

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Everyone needs some downtime; it is essential for well-being and mental health.

At least that’s what is written in the 2024 federal budget, which establishes a “Right to Disconnect.”

“One of the realities of life for all Canadians, but particularly for younger Canadians, is this experience of being always on, always available,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Tuesday following the budget release. “It’s not healthy, it’s not a good way to live.”

Once implemented, the right would allow federally-regulated workers the right to not answer work-related calls or emails while away from work. The government says many Millennial and Gen Z workers have worked their whole careers without having a firm separation between jobs and personal time.

The 2024 budget says it will provide $4.2 million over the next five years to support the program to enable the Labour Program at Employment and Social Development Canada to implement legislative amendments to the Canada Labour Code.

The policy is expected to benefit upwards of 500,000 employees nationwide working in sectors such as finances, telecommunications, and transportation.

Digital anthropologist Giles Crouch notes France was the first country to implement legislation for a “right to disconnect” in 2017. Since then, other places around the globe have followed in the country’s footsteps, including Ontario in 2023. In that province, employers with more than 25 employees are required to create a written policy on disconnecting from work.

Crouch expects provinces will create their own “right to disconnect” policy following the federal budget.

Crouch says in the early days of email, immediately responding to messages became the social norm, which has only carried over with the introductions of smartphones and social media.

But regulating anything that relates to technology can be a challenge.

“You need to find that balance where an organization can still get done what it needs to get done and innovate and not have too many regulations, but at the same time we need to protect employees,” says Crouch. “If a culture says you’re going to always be available, it’s hard to say no to that.

“But if regulations are put in place, an employee can push back and say, ‘No, you know what, after 5 p.m. that’s it, I want family time, I want friends’ time.’”

“It is well intentioned,” says Gerald Walsh, a human resources consultant and expert on the “right to disconnect.” “If you’re a newer employee in an organization and trying to make a name for yourself, you might feel an obligation to be on call all the time so this would be some welcomed relief, particularity if you have an overpowering boss.”

He admits the idea could have some challenges, especially with so many people working from home, which can make planning meetings more difficult.

Not every job is a typical nine-to-five, meaning working hours can be blurred. Walsh says even in jobs where you are “always on,” you should not be expected to answer anything work related if you are not scheduled to be working.

“A good boss actually respects the right of their workers to not have to respond,” he says. “Except in the case of emergency, you should not have to respond right away so there is no expectation.”

Nigel Bone is a psychotherapist at Port City Counselling in Saint John. He says the “right to disconnect” will reduce burnout in employees, and relieve some anxiety for those worried about missing a work call or email while off the clock.

“I think that young folks nowadays in some ways work not harder but in harder conditions,” Bone says. “They continue to push themselves harder, try and earn stripes so there phone is always going off, they are answering emails after hours and I think it’s a hard thing to shut off.”

Bone is hopeful this is only the beginning for the new right.

“As time goes on I hope it’s applicable not just from a federal perspective but across the board and into different industries,” he says. “It would have to look different but I would like to see it work in things like healthcare as well.”

There is no timeline as to when the new right will be officially implemented by the federal government. 

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