Giving all your employees a paid week off is a nice way to show appreciation, but the effects will likely wear off quite quickly. Here’s what you should do to prevent collective burnout.
Think of the last time you felt incredibly busy – the work kept piling up; the meeting invites were quadrupling; and your inbox unreads were creeping into the thousands. What did you want more than anything at that moment? A glass of wine? Perhaps. But I bet the allure of a holiday crossed your mind at some point too.
When we’re packed to the gills with tasks, it’s not uncommon to fantasise about stretching out on a beach towel with a good book. While these breaks are incredibly important, they’re not the best remedy to combat deep exhaustion or burnout.
“We know from research that the benefits of a vacation can be quite short lived,” says Dr Stacey Parker, senior lecturer and centre director of the Centre for Business and Organisational Psychology, School of Psychology at University of Queensland.
“Employees can feel happier and less burnt out during the vacation, but there’s what we call the ‘fade out effect’ which occurs when you return to work. You slowly lose those wellbeing gains and return to the pre-vacation level of burnout. Most studies say that it only takes around two to four weeks for that to occur. Others have said it can be as quick as one week.”
Responding to collective burnout
When it comes to collective burnout (when an entire workforce is emotionally and physically exhausted), some organisations turn to time off as a means to alleviate stress and prevent employees from venturing into habitual burnout territory. This occurs when impacts of burnout become so ingrained into a person’s routine (i.e. late nights, not taking breaks etc.) that they develop chronic side effects.
Dating company Bumble recently made headlines for its response to collective burnout when it gave its 700 employees a paid week off work last month. Earlier this year, LinkedIn did something similar for its 15,900 employees. Other companies have offered smaller benefits, such as paid ‘self-care days’ or ad hoc long weekends.
All of these initiatives are, of course, positive ones. These efforts take a very public stand on a growing social issue and tell employees that their organisation is serious about protecting their physical and psychological health.
However, as experts will tell you, a company-wide week off policy is unlikely to have long-term benefits if it’s not paired with a whole swathe of preventative measures.
“A vacation is great for connecting with family and friends, and having meaningful experiences… but if organisations don’t also look into preventative strategies, the company-wide vacation alone is not really going to cut it in terms of preventing collective burnout,” says Parker.
It’s important to note that HRM isn’t privy to the details of Bumble or LinkedIn’s approach to employee wellbeing. Both companies could very well have all the right protective frameworks in place, and the recent company-wide week off initiatives could be the cherry on top of a comprehensive wellbeing strategy.
We’re not here to accuse any company of putting a BandAid on a bullet wound to support their people’s mental health. But since Bumble’s approach has garnered so much interest, we felt it was important to offer our readers more information about the preventative work that needs to occur before you consider offering something similar.
Getting to the root of the cause
Fehmidah Munir, professor of Health Psychology, Loughborough University in England, wrote about Bumble’s company-wide week off for The Conversation. In the article, she says she followed private groups on social media where employees vented concerns about their employer’s reactionary approaches to burnout and wellbeing.
Speaking to HRM, Munir says these reactionary responses are likely due to employers becoming alarmed when they see the data about their employees’ poor wellbeing, and so they perhaps leap into action to try and fix the issue quickly. When attention is focused on the reaction, and not on the circumstances that led to those alarming numbers, it means they’re not addressing the root of the issue.
Instead of focusing on time off, employers need to encourage micro-breaks and design strategies to help employees detach from work, says Parker.
That could be something as stringent as enforcing a Right to Disconnect clause, as the Victoria Police recently did, or encouraging employees to engage in “low effort, relaxing hobbies and pursuits outside of work”.
“Whether that’s physical exercise, social connection, creative pursuits, meaningful volunteer pursuits… these things help immerse [people] into something else that aids that psychological detachment from the pressures and demands of work,” says Parker.
“It helps them unwind, get a sense of relaxation, and also feel like they’re mastering something outside of work, which makes them feel more like a whole and complete human.”
“We know from research that the benefits of a vacation can be quite short lived… Most studies say that it only [lasts] around two to four weeks.” – Dr Stacey Parker, senior lecturer, University of Queensland.
Equally important is that work is re-designed in a way that allows for employees to switch off. This means making sure resources are adequately supplied and utilised, and alleviating pressures and friction points where possible.
Parker and Munir include their other suggestions, including:
- Reducing “hindering demands” in the workplace – Eliminate tasks that hold up processes.
“Sometimes there’s a way of doing an administrative task, for example, that’s very time consuming or not really part of someone’s role, but we do it anyway,” says Parker. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this something we really need to do right now, with the resources that we have?”
- Enhance job autonomy – Enable your employees to have a say in how work is done. This could mean letting them set their own hours or pay, or allowing them to have a stake in decision-making processes. Parker says this could also include giving them the power to structure their own tasks, determine how and when they get done, and where they should focus their attention.
“This not only has wellbeing effects, but productivity increases too. People often discover better ways to work. A big problem in the current COVID crisis is that we’ve got a bit scared to trust employees, especially as they’re working from home. I worry that some people have been losing a bit of their autonomy,” says Parker.
- Embrace shorter weeks/days – Munir says, “Plenty of evidence suggests that reducing working hours, without reducing pay, improves the quality of work and productivity because it gives employees the time to physiologically and psychologically recover from work and feel re-energised. Allowing employees the freedom and support to change aspects of their work so they are working more quickly and efficiently also has strong benefits – we call this job crafting.”
- Understand personalities – Knowing if your employees are segmenters or integrators can help you set up strategies to help them detach from work during holiday periods (Read HRM’s article on this here).
“It’s really important that workplace cultures don’t expect people to be available in their non-work time. We call that being supportive of segmentation,” says Parker.
- Practice what you preach – Ensure leadership behaviour aligns with what you’re preaching to employees.
“If leaders are saying, ‘We care about your health and wellbeing’, but then they’re sending emails on the evenings or weekends about work matters, they’re not role modelling a healthy work life balance or proper segmentation of work and life,” says Parker.
Munir adds: “More often than not, employers feel there isn’t much they can do about [changing the] work itself due to tight resources and ongoing pressures, but this is a misunderstanding – it can be done, but it’s not a static intervention such as offering resilience training.
“Work interventions need regular monitoring and adjustments as new pressure points arise or as the business changes. This can be quite challenging for employers to undertake especially if they have no expertise in doing this or because they expect ‘instant’ results. In reality, it can take at least 12 months to see if interventions are making a difference to mental wellbeing without it negatively affecting productivity.”
Extending the holiday glow
While pinning our hopes on a holiday as the remedy for our deep exhaustion isn’t going to fix burnout, there are still some immediate benefits of taking time off.
With this in mind, there are some things you can do to prevent the fade out effect from occurring too soon.
Before employees go on leave, make sure they’re not leaving any unfinished tasks behind, as this will consciously or subconsciously niggle at them. This might seem small, but it’s a crucial step, says Parker.
“It’s really important that people get a complete break from work and that they’re not interrupted by colleagues contacting them.”
If an entire company was taking the week off, this could help people to disconnect as there’s no one to bug you about work-related issues, she says, but this doesn’t prevent the pile up of work that many people return to.
“They lose the benefits [of a holiday] more quickly because they’re back into the thick of it. This highlights the importance of preventative strategies that target work demands, work load, resources to support employees.”
This could be a comprehensive handover process, a mini reboarding process, or having someone cover the employee’s workload during their break.
It’s also important to consider the types of people trying to recoup with a holiday.
“It can be harder for some people, like those with very high job demands [such as a senior leader] or people with certain traits which mean they’re very committed to work, like perfectionistic, over committed or compulsive workers.”
A common mistake some organisations make is assuming that employees alone should be responsible for looking after their own wellbeing at work. They might think: “We’ve told them about the EAP” or “We’ve said they should log off on time. What more can I do?” But as a recent worker’s compensation case shows, that’s not always enough.
“I like to think of it like safety. It’s everyone’s responsibility,” says Parker.
Of course, employees need to do their part to prevent themselves from burning out, but employers need to actively and consistently make these prevention methods a priority and consider how they can redesign work to eliminate the potential risks and protect their people.
Start your journey towards combatting collective burnout with AHRI’s short course ‘Creating Mentally Healthy Workplaces’. Book into the next course on 20th September 2021.