This Spring has been the season of ‘disconnecting.’ Now that Ontario’s ‘right to disconnect’ law has passed, workplaces across the province are working to design policies that make sense for their particular businesses. They’re going through the process of assessing overtime policies, communications practices, and other elements to make sure that they can comply with the law without hampering the routine flow of business or upsetting customer service expectations.
For some businesses, the new law already reflects their existing culture. Many employers have turned their focus towards mental health in recent years, and looked at ways to improve working conditions for their teams. They’ve focused on work-life balance, and allowing employees that sacred downtime. For others though, their previous approach to work-life integration may need to do an about-face.
What are work-life balance and work-life integration anyway, and which one is right for your team?
Work-life balance sounds to most like some peaceful, idyllic scenario that came to a sudden stop during the pandemic. As we wrote about back in 2020, employers and employees were suddenly thrust into work-from-home scenarios that completely overturned personal boundaries, and left most of us suddenly showing co-workers the most chaotic parts of home life. Where even longstanding coworkers may not have seen your home previously, webcams were suddenly showing off crowded dining room tables, workspaces that doubled as virtual elementary school classrooms, and the proverbial messy bedrooms.
Yet that’s not really what work-life balance is about. At its core, work-life balance is really about keeping work and home priorities separate wherever possible. It’s about setting up boundaries between work priorities and personal priorities, and ensuring that enough time is made for both. Some workplaces interpret that as working hard from 9-5, but then allowing employees to have evenings and weekends uninterrupted. Others encourage that balance through promoting healthy living, such as creating flex accounts for employees that can fund exercise classes, fitness equipment, or even social activities.
One of the keys to effective work-life balance is creating those hard boundaries, and ensuring that they stay consistent. For example, this may mean a policy against using personal cell phones or social media during working hours (although those policies are harder to enforce during remote work). Yet when not on working hours, employees are free to do whatever they want without any work interruption. There is no pressure to respond to that client email while at your child’s piano recital, or to book that conference call while on vacation. As an employee, your time is once again your own.
Work-Life Integration, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. The goal is to make work just another part of your life, instead of something that intrudes on the rest of your life. This became a common solution during recurring lockdowns, as employees juggled work alongside homeschooling their children and other family obligations. Employers wisely became more flexible with schedules and deadlines. This allowed employees to get work done during quiet periods like late at night or early morning, so long as deadlines were still being met.
Work-life integration promotes the idea that you can work while still living the rest of your life, and that the two do not need to be in constant combat. If you need to fold laundry while on a conference call? No problem! Kids’ school is closed but you need to head to the office for a meeting? Take them with you and let them colour in the lunchroom. You could even proudly hang their artwork at your workspace.
The aim of work-life integration is to remind employees that it’s okay to be human. At its best, it allows employees to be more functional, and ensures that they won’t have to ‘drop everything’ just because they have competing priorities. Many employers take the view that ‘balance’ is outdated, and unrealistic in today’s modern era. All of us have things that we need to do besides work, so why not merge the two and make all tasks easier?
So who comes out ahead?
At their core, both approaches are intended for employees’ benefit, with an added benefit for the business as well. Caring about employee’s health and wellbeing may appear altruistic, but there are also tremendous benefits for the company, as the costs of poor employee mental health can have serious consequences for a business.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (as reported by the HRPA), lost productivity due to mental illness costs Canadian businesses $6 billion annually. Moreover, less than one-quarter of Canadians say that they feel comfortable approaching their employer to discuss a mental health issue. The conversations around mental health have been ongoing for several years now, but employers need to do more than just lend an ear. Good mental health practices can lead to better retention, and poor practices are a recipe for disengaged employees.
While work-life integration may have great intention, it leaves employees little time to rest and recharge. After two years of all Canadians living in a proverbial hamster wheel, a continued work-life integration approach can feel like that wheel may never stop spinning. No matter what else you have on the go, there will always be work there to greet you.
Instead, the new right to disconnect seems to favour a work-life balance approach, which ultimately makes the most sense for most workplaces. Most employees brustle at the notion of focusing on their work 24 hours a day, and the new law insists that they don’t need to. It’s okay to allow employees to ‘push pause’ when their work is done. There will be more waiting for them tomorrow, or after the weekend, but that pause gives them the time to relax and unwind that they both need and deserve.
At ScaleX we are workplace culture experts. When we work with our clients to design policies, we take into account your existing workplace culture, and how we can help make things better while still staying compliant with the law. Looking to learn more? Contact us today to set up a consultation.