The 'right to disconnect' and worker mental health

Expert weighs in on the impact of policy changes to psychological safety in the workplace

The 'right to disconnect' and worker mental health

Late in October this year, the Ontario government proposed Bill 27, the Working for Workers Act. This new legislation would, among other things, introduce the "right to disconnect" for workers in the province.

What the legislation hopes to do is to “ensure that we have more boundaries around our work, so that people can disconnect at home, and so that there’s not an expectation [of work],” says Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello, Assistant Dean, Student Programming, Development and Equity at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Ryerson University.

Bill 27 would create a requirement wherein employers with 25 or more employees would have to have a written policy on disconnecting from work (which includes emails, phone calls, video calls, etc.).

“There are many people, I think, that really want to disconnect but they don’t want to let down their employers,” says De Mello. “Because of the internet […] there is an expectation of an instant response.”

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Having specific legislation around the right to disconnect will allow people to say ‘no’ to their bosses more readily when they feel like they can’t – due to workplace culture and employee-employer power dynamics.

“The base idea around this is to promote a healthier work-life balance,” she says, which in turn benefits worker mental health.

De Mello says that legislation like this sets a tone that you as an employee don’t have, the legislation sets the expectation and changes the work culture through the introduction of a "right to disconnect" policy.

Proactive policies

“We’re always trying to provide a safer workplace [but] it is impossible to ensure that it is completely safe – especially psychologically – because we can’t control what people say, we can respond after the fact, but there can already have been harm done ” says De Mello.

Workplaces can enforce policies that are robust that think about everything from discrimination and harassment in the workplace, says De Mello, but the truth is that psychologically if somebody is to say something that is hurtful or undermines your dignity – even though enforcement policies can make sure that that is taken to task – it has an impact on the person who’s experienced it.

Safety policies around mental health should be both reactive and proactive in that they should enforce consequences when there is wrongdoing, but they should also create positive spaces “for people to feel like they can share their challenges without penalties or reputational harm,” says De Mello.

It is also important for leadership to set the tone when creating psychologically safe workplaces, by sharing their own struggles or acknowledging the burden that people have been facing with COVID for example.

Employers need to think about what it looks like to talk about mental health specifically, “I think that it’s really important to see how you showcase and communicate these things,” she says.

Acknowledging that each worker has their own specific needs, and that accommodating these needs will help people feel safer, also helps create a sense of belonging.

“You can have all the policies you want, but enforcement mechanisms and culture are very defining […] Usually the policies exist, but do they really protect you? Policies don’t stand alone, they require a culture that supports them,” says De Mello.

Proactive leadership support helps place safety at the core of organizational concerns rather than being simply a legal or policy requirement.

Collective trauma

As well as mental health, COVID is still a huge concern for employees throughout Canada.

Nevertheless, COVID has allowed for the introduction of more flexible ways of working, which can benefit workers across the board – including workers who historically will have needed accommodations, such as workers with physical or mental disabilities.

“I think we’ve learned a lot from COVID around what it looks like to support folks that require accommodations and required them before.

"I think COVID has opened up an opportunity to see a hybrid model of work, where people might be able to work from home for greater amounts of time than they were before, depending on the operational needs of the organization,” says De Mello.

“I think what COVID has offered us is the possibility of flexibility and more creative solutions.”

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So what about the future of mental health in the workplace?

“I think there’s going to be a collective trauma from the pandemic. It’s not just that we’ve had heightened mental health issues, I think there will be a collective trauma from what it has been to live in such an emergency situation,” says De Mello.

When you operate in an emergency situation, where people are uncertain about finances and jobs, where we stopped socializing, where our loved ones were ill or died, there is a collective trauma of the suffering, she says.

“I think we’re going to have to deal with [collective trauma] and employers are going to have to be cognizant that that will come into the workplace. I have to constantly check myself as I need to think about what has changed and how I can respond differently” says De Mello.

The Lincoln Alexander School of Law started with a belief that the university's innovative approach to learning should be applied to the study of law. The overriding purpose of the Lincoln Alexander School of Law's Juris Doctor (JD) program is to train career-ready legal professionals who possess the diversity of skills required to innovate the legal profession and expand the reach of justice for all Canadians.