The time is 21.00 on a Thursday evening. Dinner is eaten and the dishwasher is packed. Your nightly ritual has officially begun, starting with a hot cup of tea and the latest episode of “Succession” on your TV.
As you sink into the sofa, your phone vibrates on the coffee table. One thing, then two. “Please revise before tomorrow’s deadline,” reads a message from your boss, followed by a reply from another colleague copied to the email thread.
In a panic, you get up from the couch and grab your phone and hurry to understand what needs to be revised and to respond. Adrenaline sets in and you are suddenly jerked from any feeling of rest and relaxation. Meanwhile, your partner is quietly angry that you’re on your phone again during recess and working out into the night.
For many Canadians, this scenario is too familiar. An Angus Reid poll commissioned this year by Scott Schieman, a University of Toronto researcher, showed that 20 percent of Canadians are contacted by their boss after work several times a week. For 10 percent of Canadians, this type of unemployment disorder occurs several times a day.
That’s why the Ontario government passed law on labor for workers – also known as the “Right to Disconnect” Act – on November 30 in an attempt to get employers to think twice before sending that email after work, and “to make it easier to spend time with family and loved ones, “according to a government statement.
The law requires companies to develop their own policies on the right to disconnect from email contacts and calls outside of scheduled business hours. Companies have six months to comply, from the time the bill receives royal consent, although workplace experts are critical of whether the law will lead to fundamental changes in the age of technology.
But there is no denying that additional stress outside of working hours, caused by the rapidly blurring lines between home and work, has had a huge negative impact on our mental health – one that is greater than workers may be aware of. And it is a situation that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My dad used to say the only work he would take home would be in the folder,” said Schieman, who chairs the sociology department at U of T. Now people check their emails during dinner or send a text message to their boss while they get the kids ready for school.
“These things are now all powered by technological devices,” he added.
Eliana Cohen, a Toronto-based psychologist who specializes in mental health in the workplace, says an email from a boss at 21.00 is likely to activate two types of physical stress reactions in the brain and body, both rooted in ancient psychology: one is “fight-or-flight” response, the other is to “play death”.
“In fight-or-flight, you are activated and you are either getting ready to run or ready to fight,” Cohen said. This reaction ignites a rush of adrenaline and a faster pulse. It also causes feelings of hostility and irritability. The increased adrenaline, especially after an email late at night, could cause difficulty sleeping and anxiety the following morning.
“You might not feel like going to work with the same enthusiasm the next morning because you might be in an aviator response,” Cohen said.
The second reaction “playing death” may manifest itself through dissociative behavior, Cohen said. People may seem calm on the surface, but internally they are completely shut down and their heart rate drops. “Sometimes an employee can’t get out of bed” the next day, she said, having to pull out to feel more motivated.
These reactions to stress are both natural and protective, Cohen said. However, if disturbances after work continue, these symptoms can also lead to burnout and sometimes feeling of extreme depression. The impact also bleeds into our social lives and relationships with others, causing an buildup of even more stress and anxiety.
“If we are constantly focused on one area, such as work, and we do not have time for creativity, white space or time to socially connect with others … then it ends up being quite harmful over time,” said Paula Allen, global leader of research at LifeWorks (formerly Morneau Shepell), which examines workers’ mental health over the pandemic.
But experts argue that not all after-hours work disruptions are negative and that some workers are not passive in receiving them. Some enjoy both receiving and sending after-hours messages, especially if it involves an issue they feel is important and requires immediate attention.
“Not everyone feels oppressed by this contact after work. Some people think, ‘This is part of the job, and I’ve accepted it,’ ‘Schieman said, especially if the work is paid and offers some form of flexibility or time off as compensation. That is why he is skeptical whether a law on “the right to disconnect” would end up overworking completely.
“I’m skeptical if the government can really get into the weeds of the kind of workplace cultures and policies and practices that would enforce a 100 percent disruption, and I don’t think they can,” he said.
The law on the right to disconnect is also not entirely new when France enacted similar legislation in 2017. French law, like Ontarios, leaves implementation to employers. In one case this led to a French employee being awarded $ 87,000 by his former employer, a pest control company, after being asked to permanently leave his phone on in his spare time.
But French law does not impose sanctions on companies that do not comply with them, and experts have warned that it is still unclear what Ontario’s law will look like in practice.
What the law has done, however, is open up a conversation about the need for a better work-life balance at a time when more and more Canadian workers are reportedly struggling. LifeWorks’ recent survey, released Thursday, found that nearly a quarter of workers say their work lives have deteriorated during the pandemic and their mental health has been significantly affected as a result.
“What (the law) does is put a line in the sand that we have to be careful,” Allen said.