Inspired by a similar law in France, the province of Ontario recently passed Bill 27, a law that requires employers to establish policies designed to allow workers to take time off work. This means, in theory, fewer emails or texts in the workplace at night when we are supposed to be “excluded”. Will this help many of those who are increasingly reporting the challenges of burnout or loss of work-life balance? Will it offer more opportunities for self-care and improving interpersonal relationships at home?
Although the effects of the law have not yet been determined, one of the immediate positives about this law is that it invites us to ask questions about the role of work in our lives, and in particular about its psychological and interpersonal effects. On a broader level, the law invites us to think about what we owe to our work and what we owe to other areas of our lives: individual reflection or “self-care,” family and friends, and household chores and responsibilities. He also asks us to consider what we get from our work – how it exhausts or fills us psychologically and how it interacts, positively or negatively, with our other relationships.
At best, this law could change the way work negatively enters personal time and space, or at least give workers the language to express it as interference with their employers. This is likely to affect those for whom work is not a meaningful life activity but a means to an end. Many of my clients say they have been “triggered” by a late afternoon or evening message from a boss reminding them of their antipathy at work. It is an intervention that colors their home life and reminds them of the unethical attraction of their work during their intended stay. At best, this law will help give political support to this invasion and allow employees to set healthier boundaries with their employer.
For others, however, work is a continuation or parallel of their life interests and broader goals; The commitment after working hours is partly a reflection of professional pleasure. For those lucky enough to find a job that engages them in cognitive, interpersonal, or creative ways, working late or after work on a project can be a meaningful extension of their personal or entertainment interests. The work you want to continue after 5:00 pm can be a sign of purposeful work, the lack of which often materializes clinically as depressive symptoms (“I don’t have meaningful self-generating activities”).
There is another connection to work that I often see in my practice, which the “right to end a relationship” does not fully apply: those who use excessive work as a distraction or a means of dealing with a failed home life. I’ve seen this often appear in couple therapy, where a partner admits that he uses work to escape unhappy dynamics, and is afraid to turn the key to go home.
For this type of client, having more excuses to stay involved to work all the time keeps the anxious home situation at bay. For many, it can be incredibly relieving to be on call or take a long shift over the weekend to refrain from family events. While this can certainly be a form of avoidance, it can also be a way of indirectly separating personal space or taking care of oneself – claiming and prioritizing one’s own time and space apart from family.
These cases invite us to consider the causal dynamics between work and domestic or social life. Has my grueling schedule and constant emails and text messages caused wedges with my wife? Or is work a satisfying and convenient way to avoid negative interpersonal habits with your partner? Sometimes an unsatisfactory relationship can push us deeper into our work, either as an avoidance strategy or as a means of finding satisfaction or interpersonal affirmation elsewhere. In other words, it is sometimes difficult to clinically assess whether an intrusion into the workplace at home is the result of push or pull factors, which complicate our “right” to disconnect.
Although I personally do not believe that this law can solve all the many ways in which we are connected and engaged in work, I argue that it requires discussion of the various roles that work plays in our lives, and indeed part of the mileage, from which we get an increasingly connected 24/7 work culture. Understanding how work serves or does not serve other non-work areas of our lives is a potentially productive consequence of this law, whether in France or Ontario.