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As employers call office workers back to their desks following two-plus years of remote work during the pandemic, more staffers have been setting firmer boundaries around their off-hours.Hanna Barczyk/The Globe and Mail

When people e-mailed Brigid Schulte over the summer, they got an unconventional out-of-office message in return.

Over six paragraphs, Schulte offered a gentle reminder – as well as science – on the importance of time off. She pointed to Swedish research on “collective restoration,” which happens when large numbers of workers are able to experience leisure time simultaneously (consider the quiet, restful period after Christmas and before New Year’s Eve).

After receiving her unorthodox auto-reply, some people told her they felt relief. As a thinker who challenges North Americans’ culture of overwork, Schulte felt she should walk the talk. Today, out-of-office messages like hers signal a change in how we value our hours at work and beyond it.

“These e-mail returns are cultural markers: they are a part of how we shift norms,” said Schulte, who is director of the Better Life Lab, which focuses on improving public policy, workplace practice and culture.

“There is this recognition that we don’t have to keep working the way we did in 2019 – that there were problems with it and that there are other ways of working that are just as effective, if not more effective, and give people time for quality of life and care responsibilities.”

As employers call office workers back to their desks following two-plus years of remote work during the pandemic, more staffers have been setting firmer boundaries around their off-hours. Some are using increasingly assertive auto-responses and signature lines to dissuade off-the-clock work communications. “I’m sending this e-mail at a time that works for me; please only reply at a time that works for you,” one might read. Or, “This automatic reply is a means to manage the high volume of e-mail I receive in a way that is sustainable for me.”

The problem with the ‘right to disconnect’ from work

Experts view this new corporate language as evidence of a broader acceptance around setting boundaries, with more office workers now feeling entitled to their personal time. In the tone of their e-mails, they model the possibility of more manageable work schedules, encouraging others to treat their time like the valuable commodity it is.

Reflecting this shift in office culture, Ontario enacted a “right to disconnect” law in November, 2021, forcing companies with more than 25 employees to draft policies that address off-hours work communication, with policies due this past June. Part of the push was to set clearer boundaries around the work day to reduce burnout and high staff turnover rates during the pandemic. Politicians in Quebec have been mulling similar legislation since 2017, after France passed its own disconnection law (Italy, Spain and Belgium also have their own versions).

Time use experts note that some of these European countries have more entrenched traditions of workers’ rights, with more citizens prioritizing life over career. Contrast this to the North American mindset, where disconnecting has traditionally been viewed as a perk or privilege.

Today, the resistance to overwork is growing louder. Schulte sees a move away from the old “performance of work,” to something more transparent and sustainable.

“We all pretend to be these ideal, always-on workers. So much of work is that: you’re playing this role that doesn’t have anything to do with the work itself and everything to do with the perception of you,” said Schulte, who is writing her next book, Over Work: Finding a Better Way to Work & Live.

“Now, there’s a recognition that maybe we don’t have to keep pretending to work all the time – that we’re doing good work in the hours that we have.”

While some have dubbed the current moment of increased worker power “quiet quitting,” others see a healthy shift in employees reclaiming their unpaid off hours from a voracious grind.

“In burnout cultures, people are judged by the sacrifices they make. Hobbies, vacation, even family time are viewed as distractions to penalize,” said Matthias Spitzmuller, a distinguished professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. “In healthy cultures, it is celebrated that people have interests outside of work and stay connected to these interests.”

Surveying 12,000 Canadian employees since September, 2019, and then all throughout the pandemic, Scott Schieman and his colleagues found more people reflecting on the role of work in their lives.

“Broadly speaking, workers developed more autonomy and voice throughout the pandemic,” said Schieman, a University of Toronto sociology professor who studies work-life realities. The last two years of disruption have “created a mindset shift about boundaries around when works starts and when it finishes,” he added.

This fall, nearly 40 per cent of Canadians said if an employer mandated a full-time return to the office, they would begin looking for another job permitting remote or hybrid work, according to a September survey of 676 people conducted for the University of Manitoba and Association for Canadian Studies by market research firm Leger. More than 5 per cent said they’d quit immediately rather than face a five-day-week in the office.

“If your organization is not accounting for preferences and availability, you will lose staff,” said Ellen Ernst Kossek, a distinguished professor of management at Purdue University who researches work-life issues. She believes the new frontier of flexibility lies in boundaries and workers’ available hours.

“There’s a growing number in the work force who are feeling that they want to be able to do work in a way that really has less enmeshment in our personal lives,” said workplace culture consultant Bruce Daisley.

He believes that previously, our relationship to work resembled our relationship to grade school, where attendance, rules and prohibitions abounded. “Work infantilized us to some extent,” Daisley said. Today, going to work feels more akin to going to university: “Here, we’re responsible for delivering results. We do the work at the time it suits us; it’s not necessarily dictated by place or time.”

The right to disconnect after work hours is written directly into staffers’ contracts at Alexandre Leduc’s party, Québec solidaire, which has been pushing disconnection legislation for years following France’s 2017 move. The proposed opposition bill, which stalled in the legislature, included fines for employers who failed to create policies with consensus from their staff.

“Of course a right to disconnect law will not solve everything on its own,” said Leduc, a member of the National Assembly of Quebec. “But it’s a culture that needs to evolve. … This was a kind of kick in the butt.”

Leduc has reflected on his own workplace culture: “Do I really need to send this e-mail at 9 p.m. because I just had a good idea? No, I just send it tomorrow.”

While Ontario leads the way in Canada with its disconnect law, labour lawyers and other experts are cautioning that given there are no legal ramifications for bosses who ignore their own policies, the legislation is merely a starting point.

Another issue with blanket disconnect policies that dictate “on” and “off” hours is they may actually collide with the customized, flexible hours some employees came to rely on while working from home in the pandemic.

Kossek would like to see more nuanced disconnect policies that acknowledge people work in different ways. She also stressed that boundaries need to match workloads: “You can set your boundaries but if you still have the same workload to get done, you’re just working crazy busy without time to think.”

Problematically, disconnection policies risk creating two tiers of employees: those happy to log off, and those who will not chance pushing back on overwork, seeing it as the wrong signal to send professionally. Kossek noted that currently, those who are most vocal about healthier work-life boundaries – women with caregiving responsibilities, single parents, people suffering from health issues and poorer employees with longer public transit commutes – still hazard professional consequences for speaking up. This, as always-on employees stand to be rewarded for their commitment.

“If you’re a leader that likes to work that way, you’re going to unconsciously favour people who work like you,” Schulte said of employers biased toward tireless, forever-reachable staff. “There’s no doubt that’s something to watch for.”

Today, some workers are willing to stick their necks out. Take Katherine Goldstein, whose out-of-office response feels radical.

“In a society that undervalues our labor, mothers taking time and space away from paid work and caregiving is an act of survival and political rebellion. I am away from the computer and will not be checking e-mail until Sept 19,” read Goldstein’s e-mail bounce-back this summer.

“My out-of-office is meant to be provocative rather than helpful,” said Goldstein, creator of The Double Shift, a newsletter and community described as a social change laboratory for moms.

Her message is antithetical to the traditional out-of-office reply, which offers alternative contacts in case of an emergency, or “manufactured emergency,” as Goldstein puts it. To her, recouping personal time from a barrage of requests is especially important for women who are caregivers. When she’s on holiday, everyone gets her out-of-office response, from potential business collaborators to her child’s second grade teacher.

“It’s a message that, even if it makes them uncomfortable, is good for people to reflect on,” Goldstein said. “The people who feel they can be provocative and practice what they preach in this, it helps start to change cultural norms.”

All of these efforts – the assertive e-mails, right to disconnect policies, even longer response times from employees to their bosses – constitute an attempt to “put a shape to what has become a shapeless day,” Schulte argued.

“We’re having much more intentional conversations than ever before, when work was just a place you went and sat around a lot. As we move into this new era, it’s all the more reason to continue these conversations. The pandemic isn’t over. We haven’t settled on any one work style. There’s so much in flux.”

Why we need to log off

The benefits of disconnecting from work are myriad – to creativity and productivity, to our relationships and to quality of life overall.

Creativity requires off-hours, said Bruce Daisley, author of Eat Sleep Work Repeat, a book, podcast and newsletter focused on the relationship between work and our lives.

“The notion that creative ideas come when we demand them, when we’re squinting into a Word document, unfortunately doesn’t have any bearing on the realities of how our lives work,” Daisley said. “Creative thought is often what occurs to us in downtime.”

Disconnecting from work is also key to productivity, which isn’t so much your hours but the highly focused work you’re able to do in those hours, said Katina Sawyer, co-founder of Workr Beeing, which translates science about workplace wellbeing for employees through coaching, retreats, a newsletter and podcast.

For this type of focused productivity, the mind needs recharging away from work, Sawyer said.

“Your brain ruminates on negative and stressful things much longer than it will on positives,” she said. “If you’re answering e-mails until you go to bed, your brain doesn’t have time to shut off.”

Stress levels remain spiked, sleep quality plummets and exhaustion lingers in the morning. “You’re depleting yourself for the next day when you’re working around the clock. Ultimately the tank runs out of gas,” said Sawyer, pointing to burnout.

The new boundary setting around “on” and “off hours” extends to relationships. For many families, the pandemic brought a clearer understanding of how badly they’d oversubscribed themselves in the before times.

“We have moved toward a rebalancing, where people are recognizing how stressed out they were before, what regimes they had to implement just to get to their desks on time and how it was making them bad parents and partners,” Daisley said.

“For the first time they’re thinking, ‘I’m not convinced that the tradeoff I’m being asked to participate in is worth it.’ It’s a really interesting moment.”

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