Your right to disconnect: Lack of policies, laws around emails and texts outside work hours in Canada
Beth Macdonell, CTV News Winnipeg
Published Thursday, November 7, 2019 4:10PM CST
WINNIPEG – The lines between work time and personal time are being blurred by the practice of employees checking and responding to emails and text messages on mobile devices after hours.
A Government of Canada issue paper released earlier this year said provinces don't have laws about employee rights to ignore after hours’ work emails and presented data that only 20 per cent of federally regulated employees in the private sector had policies limiting the use of company-issued devices.
The paper also raises the question -- should there be limits set on e-communication outside of work hours, and if so, how?
Trade analyst Kim Ross had a habit of checking her work email after she left the office. She'd discover clients with urgent requests about shipments stuck at the border.
"It makes me feel a little bit panicked to be completely honest with you," Ross said, speaking with CTV News in downtown Winnipeg.
Ross said checking her phone could turn into five minutes of work or an hour, and as a salaried employee, she isn't compensated for the time.
She admits she can be her own worst enemy because her employer never told her to answer email outside of the office.
A few weeks ago, she decided to remove her work email from her phone, which has been an adjustment.
She said checking messages after hours is grey area in the working world that deserves clarity.
“When someone is hired in the industry. I don't remember having the conversation you'd be hooked to your phone or your email after hours,’ said Ross.
TECHNOLOGY AND MORE TIME WORKING
Stats from 2015 presented in the paper show 27 per cent of federally regulated employees in the private sector had been issued phones by their employers, with 46 per cent of companies handing out devices.
Data also revealed 41 per cent of employees checked work email outside of office hours, 31 per cent responded, 28 per cent answered phone calls or text messages, and 31 per cent did actual work outside of office hours.
Another finding -- 40 per cent of people surveyed indicated technology increased the time spent working.
PRESSURE TO RESPOND
Pitblado law partner Tracey Epp specializes in employment.
Epp said one reason some employees respond to work emails and messages is because of pressure. She has heard reports of employees being contacted on vacation or while at home sick, which can interfere with their ability to unplug and can lead to stress or mental health issues.
From a legislative perspective, Epp said if you work more than eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, you are entitled to overtime, but this does not apply to managers.
“The managers don't get compensated for the overtime, so they are the ones often are sending out the emails and text to employees, and they don't even know they are creating a liability for their employer,” said Epp.
She said responding after hours also creates questions around being called back to work and what triggers paid overtime.
“Up until now that's been interpreted to mean physically you are required go back to work, whereas if you are in your pajamas on the couch at home and your emailing or texting, you’re not going back to work, so is that triggering?” said Epp.
EMPLOYEES HAVE REASONS TO STAY CONNECTED
Not all employees believe responding to emails and messages after work is a burden. According to the issue paper, many find mobile technology helpful.
Reasons to stay connected include opportunities for advancement, to feel important, finish a project or deal with an emergency, prepare for next day and have a sense of peace.
Mobile devices can also allow flexible hours for things like medical appointments.
DISCONNECTING IN OTHER JURISDICTIONS
The paper said in 2017 France instituted a right to disconnect, requiring companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate a policy around communication outside work hours.
In Germany, Volkswagen stops servers from sending emails to some staff between 6:15 p.m. and 7 a.m.
In Canada, Epp said employers and employees should be mindful, talk, and come up with policies.
YOUR RIGHT TO DISCONNECT. ARE GOVERNMENTS DOING ANYTHING?
Employment and Social Development Canada told CTV News in an email, the issue paper was delivered to an expert panel, which provided a report to the Minister of Labour in the summer. It’s being reviewed.
Federally regulated employees include people who work in transportation, banks, and telecommunications.
CTV News reached out to the Province of Manitoba about provincially regulated employees who make up about 90 per cent of the workforce.
A spokesperson said the province is not currently considering a policy to regulate voluntary email use outside regular work hours.