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Working to death: Canadians need legal right to disconnect, experts say

WATCH: Raking in all that overtime will cost you your health, according to new research from the World Health Organization. Jamie Mauracher reports on how working too much could heighten your risk of death, and how the pandemic is exacerbating the issue.

More than a year since millions of Canadians logged into a work-from-home routine, many are still struggling to log out.

These days, there is a “sense of obligation” to stay connected, but workers need the right to disconnect, said Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

“We have to find a way to change that attitude,” he said.

“Equally, we have to provide legal protection for people so they don’t have that sense of guilt if they didn’t respond to an email, or didn’t get on their computer, or didn’t answer their phone.”

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Now, with a new study suggesting that constant connection is more dangerous than you think, experts say even more attention is needed.

Long work hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people a year, according to the World Health Organization. The first-of-its-kind global study found 745,000 people died from stroke and heart disease associated with long working hours in 2016 — an increase of nearly 30 per cent from 2000.

While it did not analyze the pandemic, WHO officials believe the public health crisis is “accelerating” the trend toward increased work time and may bear increased risks.

As of March 2021, five million Canadians have been working temporarily from home due to the pandemic. By April, that number had grown by 100,000 to 5.1 million.

While there was some fluctuation in 2020, total working hours in Canada have been on an “upward trend since the beginning of 2021,” according to Statistics Canada.

By now, many Canadians have adapted to the new routines, but it hasn’t made it easier.

“There’s a growing expectation by employers that you will be available, given all this technology available to stay connected,” said Lior Samfiru, the founder of the labour and employment law practice at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.

“There’s less of a distinction between work time and personal time.”

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The WHO report — which drew on data from 194 countries — indicates that those who worked 55 hours or more a week were associated with a 35 per cent higher risk of stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.

Data shows that increased workplace demands have had a tangible impact on Canadians’ physical and mental health as well.

A recent study asked Canadians to reflect on how their lives changed over the past year. The poll, conducted by Ipsos, found 34 per cent of Canadians felt their physical health had worsened, while 43 per cent said their mental health had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.

The same poll found that 60 per cent of Canadians had increased their screentime as remote work, online school and virtual workouts are becoming the norm.

Experts largely agree on “unplugging” as an antidote to workplace burnout. But it’s not as easy as it may seem, and not everyone has the luxury, said Frank Graves, the president of Ekos Research and adjunct professor of sociology at Carleton University.

“Working from home certainly has had its challenges … but there is a case to be made that the impacts of the pandemic have been far more severe for those who could not work at home,” he told Global News.

That portion of the population is often made up of the working class or those from poorer backgrounds, he said, who may not have post-secondary education but became essential workers almost overnight.

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“They have been exposed to higher levels of risk and are more likely to be victims of COVID-19, and more likely to experience underlying health conditions because of the social determinants of health,” he said.

“I think there will be significant and negative impacts for having felt this level of stress for such an unusual period of time.”

On top of navigating remote roles, many workers are also juggling families and other personal responsibilities.

It can feel like a feat to juggle, but experts say there are simple solutions Canadians can take to mitigate stresses. Things like differentiating between a workspace and a space for you to relax in your home can go a long way. Focusing on controlling what you can is also a widely recommended strategy — whether that be what you’re having for lunch or what workout video you’ll tackle and when.

When it comes to long hours and feeling obligated to stay connected, experts worry the line has “fully blurred.”

Setting boundaries with your work hours starts with having a discussion with your employer about how you’re feeling, said Samfiru.

“Express your concerns to your employer in writing. Let them know what the agreement initially was when you accepted the job,” he said.

If an employee feels like their health is being negatively impacted by working additional hours, Samfiru said a doctor’s note can be a “powerful tool.” While it won’t apply to everyone, it’s something employers have to accommodate, he said.

However, many employees feel they are between a “rock and a hard place” now, said Samfiru.

“They worry if they tell their employer, ‘This is too much,’ that they’ll be replaced with someone else. There’s a lot of people out there looking for work,” he said.

“I think a lot of employers are receptive and understand there are limits. The problem is, there’s no way to force an employer to abide by these understandings.”

It’s something Yussuff and the Canadian Labour Congress has been pushing for.

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Yussuff said they recently finished a broad consultation with the federal government on The Right to Disconnect — a legislative effort that mirrors a law first passed in France, which grew out of concerns that technology has had negative impacts on work-life balance.

In Canada currently, workers do not have a right to disconnect.

“It has to be a legal protection,” Yussuff said.

“We need to ensure that people have a legal right to disconnect at a certain time if they choose to do so, and equally to ensure employers aren’t taking reprisal against them because they chose to disconnect and not respond to an email.”

In some ways, it will boil down to changing mindsets, said Yussuff.

“I think we’re going to have to train ourselves, in a way, to say that this is not the norm,” he said.

“This is totally abnormal.”

— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Jamie Mauracher 

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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