Can you legislate a work-life balance?

OPINION: When work is home and home is work and your phone is always on, it can be hard to maintain boundaries — which is where a new proposed Ontario law comes in
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 28, 2021
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton at a Queen’s Park press conference announcing proposed legislation on October 25. (cpac/YouTube)

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After toiling and scraping as a freelancer, my first job in journalism was as a copy editor at the National Post, assigned to the commentary pages. The paper always encouraged me to write, and write as much as possible, which is how you find yourself reading my words today. But for the first year or so, my actual responsibilities involved proofreading copy … which I’m terrible at, but, hey … and creating the pages that would run in the next day’s paper using a variety of tools to combine the raw text and photos into the final layout. And this was all under huge deadline pressure, with the constant risk that some more senior editor or another would spot a problem or make a change or otherwise blow up the process. When that happened, I’d get a call from one of the “pre-press” guys — the staff who were the last at the Post to see a page draft before it went off to the printing press.

I still have dreams about those calls. In my dreams, the problems are absurd, of course. Entire pages are blank or every word is spelled wrong. The real-life version typically wasn’t nearly that exciting — it would be some little fiddle, or an editor would notice that we’d chosen to use a photo that was already scheduled to run up in the news section (it got priority). Every so often, news developments late in the evening would render something in our pages moot or even wrong, and we’d need to correct on the fly, which required frantically calling the author and praying they’d pick up to approve the change. Usually — usually — fixing the issue took just a few minutes. But waiting for those calls ... that seemed like forever. It was only when the hour was late enough I knew the presses were running that I could really relax. Even if I’d been home for hours, the work day didn’t really end. I was always waiting for that call.

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I’m serious about the dreams. We’ve all heard of variations of anxiety dreams. Some people dream about stepping up to a lectern and realizing they haven’t prepared a speech or being on stage to sing and forgetting the lyrics. Others dream of suddenly realizing in public that they are, ahem, rather underdressed. For me, it’s typically involved my old high-school principal tracking me down to tell me that I had apparently missed some obscure credit decades ago and technically never graduated so have to go back for a term. Or, of course, those calls about the pages. I ranked up fairly quickly at the Post, and worrying about the pages became someone else’s problem; the process was eventually offloaded to a specific unit of editors, and I never had to worry about it all. But the dreams didn’t stop. They still haven’t.

This week, the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Monte McNaughton, announced his government would introduce omnibus legislation to implement a series of workplace reforms. They generally seem to make sense. The most interesting one to me was the proposed “right to disconnect.” It would set some kind of limit around when companies could contact their employees, to ensure that we all have sufficient time away from work to decompress and recharge.

This would never work in my industry, not entirely, as we are always subject to late-breaking developments. A journalist is never fully off-duty. But this is a genuinely important issue for millions of Ontarians. Even before the pandemic, experts were increasingly worried that the ease of electronic communication was erasing traditional barriers between work life and home life. Since the arrival of COVID-19, this has obviously become an even bigger problem for the many millions who now work almost entirely from home. Worlds have collided at great speed. I worked from home even before the pandemic, so the shift was less wrenching for me than many, but I’ve still felt a gradual but persistent erosion of any meaningful difference between home hours and work hours.

I have tried to adapt as best I can. As many others have. Some of my friends have actually resorted to having two entirely different smartphone devices. One, the business phone, typically issued by their employer and paid for by same, contains all the necessary workplace apps and email accounts; it’s the number the boss calls when they need something. The other device, the play phone — a personal device that does not overlap with work at all — contains video-streaming apps, music and podcasts, and personal social-media and online-dating accounts; it’s the phone mom or dad calls (though hopefully not while the dating app is being used to its full effect).

I was surprised the first few times I saw friends juggling two phones, since it seemed like a hassle to walk around with two devices you have to worry about. But it made sense, when I thought about it. I’m a one-device man. My phone is where my work and family life are in their most intense conflict. This has probably complicated my efforts, before and during the pandemic, to establish proper degrees of work-life balance. All my work, activity, and productivity apps are only a thumb swipe away from my music playlists and the Kindle app with all my books. Switching from work to pleasure, or back, is so easy and instantaneous that any meaningful difference between the two has largely evaporated.

Over the past year, I recognized the toll this was taking on my peace of mind and family and made some adjustments. When I go on holiday, I simply delete all the workplace apps and social-media accounts from my phone. I turn it instantly back into a recreational device and (if you can imagine such a thing), a phone. Like, for phone calls. Anyone likely to need to reach me in an emergency knows my phone number, and I give them a heads-up in advance that I’m going dark for my holiday, so please only call if something is on fire or someone relevant is dead or dying. This small change has made an enormous difference. I also recently bought a dedicated e-reader tablet so that I can carry all my books around with me without having any temptation to take a quick peek at my work email or social accounts while trying to lose myself in a good yarn. This bends the one-device rule a bit, true, but still honours it in spirit, I think — the e-reader stays home, and when I pick it up to read, I leave the phone in another room.

So adaptation is possible. People are finding ways to re-establish the necessary separation between work life and private life. But more can be done. Much will hinge on what McNaughton actually proposes, and enforcement will be an issue, but empowering people to erect proper separation between the office and home, even if the office is in your home, is a good idea. If nothing else, it might spare you the hassle of carrying around that extra phone. And perhaps a few lousy dreams.

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