Do We Need to Disconnect to Reconnect?

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc


November 05, 2021

Working from home during COVID-19 has made it difficult to disconnect during off hours. It's hard not to answer an email when it's one click away or extend work hours since there’s no commute. I feel guilty if I block time off for myself or for activities outside the workplace — as though I will be frowned upon for not "working harder."

With the outcome of increased work hours and an ever-blurring line between home and office, there has been a greater emphasis and advocacy for work-life balance. However, burnout is not a new phenomenon. In 1997, Maslach and colleagues defined burnout as a syndrome of over exhaustion leading to greater job cynicism and/or negativism as well as reduced work performance. In fact, in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout syndrome as an occupational phenomenon.

There are several factors that may contribute to the onset and persistence of workplace burnout. Workplace environment (eg, lack of resources, interpersonal stressors) plays a significant role, as do learned helplessness and clashes of individual and organizational interests. Indeed, burnout syndrome may also create a negative work environment for others as a result of burnout-induced conflict, disruption, and aggression.

Notwithstanding the workplace itself, there are also concerns of burnout with respect to health. It is known that exhaustion is generally linked to chronic fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, hypertension, and poor sleep. In fact, the WHO has highlighted the dangers of long working hours as it relates to increased mortality and morbidity (eg, heart disease, stroke). On this note, the Japanese have coined the term karoshi — "death by overwork."

Moreover, burnout has been reported to be associated with poor mental health outcomes. A meta-analysis identified an association between burnout and depression, as well as between burnout and anxiety. Although additional evidence is needed to further substantiate this relationship, serious consideration should be met as it relates to work-related disability and death.

Interestingly, the Ontario government recently proposed legislation to protect employees with a right to disconnect. Under this legislation, organizations or companies with 25 or more people would need to implement policies allowing their employees to disconnect from work activities outside of office hours. However, the question then becomes, is the right to disconnect a real solution or a Band-Aid fix to the current problem?

It is possible that restricting work activities could actually increase stress. Results from an online poll conducted by KPMG found that almost half of surveyed employees had greater workloads compared to pre-pandemic times. As such, implementing these restrictions is not necessarily an answer to achieving work-life balance.

While mental health has become a bigger priority during the pandemic, there is an ever-growing need to identify concrete next steps. Personal well-being does not need to be mutually exclusive with workplace productivity and success. In fact, protecting the individual could improve workplace health. Perhaps we need to reconsider what is a "manageable workload" as well as increase flexibility (eg, hours, environments) for individuals, in order to be successful at work and at home.

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc student. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence.


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