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New ‘disconnecting from work’ policies aren’t enough to tackle the problem of work-life balance

Critics say more emphasis needs to be placed on broader structural issues.

BY MICHAEL RANCIC | AUG 08 2022

In June, universities across Ontario unveiled their new “disconnecting from work” policies in accordance with provincial legislation aimed at fostering healthier work environments. But faculty and administration alike are saying that on their own, these policies do nothing to upend the more deeply rooted issues that drive high workloads and burnout.

“When you hire a faculty member, you’re hiring an uber-keener that wants to work their entire life, right? And that’s the way administration overworks us, by filtering us out to the ones that are going to be thinking about their working life 70 hours a week,” said Shoshanah Jacobs, an associate professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Guelph. For Dr. Jacobs, overworking is a value that’s not only sought after, but rewarded in academic career paths. So addressing the issue of work-life balance requires a much more thorough examination of the deeply ingrained cultures within universities, if administrators truly wish to shift the scales.

Put forward by Ontario’s Conservative government in 2021, Bill 27, called the “Working for Workers Act,” requires employers of 25 individuals or more to have a written policy around disconnecting from work. The bill primarily takes aim at communications like emails, messages, and video or telephone calls – all aspects of work that have increased since COVID-19 and lockdowns first came into effect more than two years ago.

Sheila Embleton, a distinguished research professor of linguistics at York University and chief steward for the York University Faculty Association, has seen the encroachment of technology and the greater reliance on communication tools since she first started at York in 1980. From her perspective, the impulse to respond to emails outside of work hours is a “coping mechanism” for individuals struggling to keep up with their workloads during their normal hours, and a symptom of a much greater issue.

Already, Dr. Embleton is seeing how her colleagues are adjusting to the new policy in a way that suggests not much has really changed. “You wouldn’t believe how much mail comes in within the span of five minutes on a Monday morning at 8 a.m. It’s just wild. You can tell that they must have done it late at night, the night before, or have been working on the weekend,” she said.

Focus on individual responsibility

The rollout of these boilerplate policies province-wide has been accompanied by educational campaigns and resources from university administrators that vary from institution to institution. At Wilfrid Laurier University, for example, chief human resources and equity officer Pam Cant said the institution provides “access to a number of wellness resources for staff and faculty including mental health, stress reduction and relaxing and physical health, in addition to the work-life balance resources available through Laurier’s Employee and Family Assistance Program.” These materials have also been added for new employees, managers and academic administrators as a part of their onboarding.

McMaster University has also provided its employees and their supervisors with resources, such as a website that reiterates the disconnecting from work policy in plain language and provides links to support, which will be continuously updated. The university has also been running training sessions on the topic of workload. “I think we do need to think about how we work,” said Wanda McKenna, McMaster’s assistant vice-president and chief human resources officer. “Can an hour meeting be a 30-minute discussion? How are you constructively using technology and formats, how are you delivering services?”

However, critics say that the language used in related policies and resources, such as a reliance on “wellness” practices to deal with stress, places responsibility for workload management on the individual when the problem is in fact broader. Policies on disconnecting from work at universities across the province expect the employee to be their own advocate if and when they have an issue with communications outside of work hours.

Are expectations too high?

Dr. Jacobs (who uses the pronouns they/them), believes policies like these don’t take into account an employee’s position and how that plays into work-life balance, or lack thereof. This is something Dr. Jacobs said they could relate to, having experienced job precarity for five years of their career. “I have quite a bit of confidence and can advocate for myself,” they said, “but a new faculty member without tenure? Coming into this situation, of course they’re going to feel like they have to work 80 hours a week.”

Dr. Embleton agreed, noting the high numbers of women, often racialized, who were forced to take on other duties such as childcare and eldercare while lecturing and working from home during COVID-19 lockdowns. “We need to try to find a way to have the conversation,” she said. “Are the expectations for tenure too high, [is there] too much pressure to publish, too much pressure to go to too many conferences, too much pressure to be on too many committees?”

Dr. Jacobs sees this phenomenon happening alongside what they call a “downloading of administrative responsibility” onto faculty and researchers, not only charging them with being their own business administrators but also with learning the tools or platforms needed to perform administrative tasks.

Ms. McKenna agrees that for this or any other workload-related bill or requirement to be successful, there needs to be a more holistic approach. She said that while the right to disconnect is something McMaster must fulfill because of legislation, it arrived at a time when the university had already been having internal conversations about workload and the future of work. In 2021, Susan Tighe, McMaster’s provost and vice-president, co-sponsored a workplace and employee experience committee that made its first round of recommendations in May of that year.

“The right-to-disconnect requirement doesn’t magically make work disappear. It doesn’t magically change cultures across departments,” Ms. McKenna said. “In the next year, as our committees continue to unfold, and we continue to progress this work, I think we will continue to be in the pilot stage. If we’ve started something and hear it’s not working, let’s be prepared to adjust. Let’s make sure the conversations are there so people are able to share what’s working and what’s not.”

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