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Are your employees disconnecting? Plug into what’s happening with a workplace assessment

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Last year, my colleagues wrote two great blogs about workplace assessments. Sophie Martel answered the question of “the difference between a workplace investigation and a workplace assessment,” and Dana J. Campbell-Stevens outlined some “key considerations when preparing for a workplace assessment.”  In this blog, I highlight some practical applications of workplace assessments in the context of recently enacted “right-to-disconnect” legislation in Ontario and the issue of overwork more generally.

Right-to-disconnect legislation

On December 2, 2021, the Ontario government enacted the Working for Workers Act 1 Among other things, the legislation introduces a requirement that, by June 2, 2022, employers with 25 or more employees implement a policy on the right to disconnect from work.

The “right to disconnect” refers to the right of employees not to engage with work-related e-communications outside of work hours. The concept emerged with the proliferation of mobile technologies and has gained increased attention during the pandemic as remote working arrangements have blurred the line between work and personal time for many employees. Right-to-disconnect legislation was first introduced in France in 2016, and has since been implemented by other countries, such as Italy, Slovakia, and the Philippines.

There are currently no explicit requirements in Ontario’s new legislation as to what a policy must contain, leaving employers to decide how to define expectations around the concept of disconnecting within their organization.

Beyond imposing new legal requirements, the new legislation has spurred a larger conversation about overwork and burnout. Studies suggest that employees who engage in e-communications for work purposes after hours experience reduced work-life balance and are at a higher risk for burnout,2 a condition of chronic workplace stress that can be detrimental to a person’s physical and mental health, and can have a negative impact on an organization by decreasing morale and productivity and increasing employee turnover.

A workplace assessment, can be developed to address a wide range of organizational concerns in connection with burnout and overwork, including the need to create a “right to disconnect” policy, problems with organizational culture, or a desire to proactively tune into employee wellbeing.

Workplace assessments in action

A workplace assessment is a process that seeks to gather information about the culture, practices, or behaviours in a workplace so to assist an employer in addressing and responding to issues and problems. It can be conducted by someone internal to the organization or by an external reviewer, and is carried out using any number of methods or combination of methods, including interviews, surveys, questionnaires, and focus groups.

Below are some reasons why an employer might initiate a workplace assessment in the context of their new “right-to-disconnect” obligations.

Collect data to inform policy: Though there will be no “one-size-fits-all” approach for the soon-to-be mandatory right-to-disconnect policy, employers will, at a minimum, want to clarify expectations for employees about hours of work and the use of e-communications in a way that balances operational concerns with the concept of disconnecting.

A workplace policy cannot be created in a vacuum. To be effective, it must meaningfully address the day-to-day experiences of employees. It would be important to know, for example, if back-to-back video calls are cluttering employees’ schedules, pushing email correspondence after hours. Only then can an employer consider how their policy might address this. Well-designed surveys and questionnaires will elicit a defined set of data, such as information about what communication touchpoints employees are using and how they are using them, which will serve as a crucial starting point for drafting a right-to-disconnect policy.

Identify and address deeper problems: In some workplaces, the problem may not lie with after-hours e-communications per se, but with a larger problem of overwork. After all, high workloads and tight deadlines can create the need to work long hours without necessarily engaging in after-hours communications. Where long hours and constant exhaustion are not only the norm, but seen as markers of success, a deeper cultural problem likely exists within an organization.

Symptoms of burnout amongst staff can manifest in a number of ways, including a high number of mental-health leaves, a drop in productivity, and high turnover. A workplace assessment can be designed in an exploratory and open-ended way to shed light on the root causes of these problems. If a cultural shift is in order, a coherent and thoughtful strategy will be required. A workplace assessment can assist in identifying what new beliefs and behaviours need to be promoted at different levels of the organization, who needs to take action, and how to track and measure changes. When done correctly, a workplace assessment has the added benefit of building trust amongst employees that their employer takes the problem of overwork within the organization seriously.

Take the temperature and create a baseline: There do not need to be symptoms of dysfunction or even signs of a problem to warrant conducting a workplace assessment. Eliciting information about employees’ experiences of their workloads or sense of work-life balance is an excellent way to “take the temperature” of employee wellbeing. When given a platform to engage, employees feel heard, and proactive employers can identify emerging issues before they become problems.  The results of a workplace assessment can also provide a valuable baseline of information should issues arise in the future.

Only by engaging in a thoughtful process to understand workplace practices and dynamics and to identify areas of improvement can an employer take action to address issues of overwork or to dismantle an “always on” work culture. Conducting a workplace assessment is an excellent way to reach these goals.

1 The full name of the legislation is Working for Workers Act, 2021, S.O. 2021, c. 35 – Bill 27.

2 “What the Research Says” in Disconnecting from work-related e-communications outside of work hours: Issue paper (December 2021), online: Government of Canada, <https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/portfolio/labour/programs/labour-standards/reports/issue-paper-disconnecting-e-communications-outside-work-hours.html#h2.5>

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