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Quartz: Burned-out employees? One way companies can help

Originally posted on Quartz by Joe Alim on November 18, 2022.

Support employee mental health with a mandated time off program

I’d only been working at the company for eight months when our CEO told me to choose a week to take off, or she would choose for me. While I had learned that was her typical, straightforward way of doing things, I knew the strategy of mandating time off was emerging as a way for companies to promote well-being and engage employees. Regardless, after committing to and taking that time off, I was able to stave off burnout and continue to thrive in my role.

Burnout culture is accelerating as sweeping layoffs continue across industries. Already worn-out employees are expected to work longer hours or leave; it’s an ultimatum Elon Musk gave the remaining Twitter staff.

It’s also a warning sign about your organization. Instead of addressing the symptoms, forward-thinking companies look to solve the root of the problem by committing to employee well-being. One meaningful way to end toxic work culture is by mandating time off.

The benefits of mandating time off

Emphasizing the importance of health and wellness as a part of mandatory time off policies is a great way to support your team in taking care of themselves. Research has shown numerous benefits of time off:

  1. Higher engagement and productivity. The Society for Human Resource Management reported that employees who were given mandatory vacation time reported higher job satisfaction than those who were not. And as Shashank Nigam and Neil Pasricha stated in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, taking time off can lead to more creativity.
  2. Better culture. If employees are missing true work-life integration, they will burn out. Mandatory time off creates a culture where people feel comfortable taking time off when needed instead of feeling guilty about taking time away from work or not performing at their best due to a lack of rest. It also gives employers the incentive to make sure each employee has all the tools necessary to succeed at their jobs while managing stress effectively without sacrificing their own mental or physical health.
  3. Fewer sick days. Aon Hewitt found a link between employee well-being and absence management, concluding that organizations that invest in wellness should reduce lost productivity over time. A 2012 report by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans found the cost savings to be one to three dollars in healthcare costs for every dollar spent on an employee wellness program, findings the US Chamber of Commerce (pdf) has supported.

How you can support employees with mandated time off

Be accommodating. The first step is to create a program that can meet the needs of all types of employees. It’s important to consider how they will take advantage of their time off and whether you want to set any restrictions on what they do with it or limit the amount of time they’re allowed to use. Just note that putting too many restrictions negates the purpose of this concept.

Create a policy that is clear and adaptable. A mandated time off program requires clear rules that are easy to understand and follow. Having the following elements in place allows for organization and structure:

Review your federal and state laws, current company policies, and procedures. Look at these in relation to regarding vacation accrual so you understand what employees are entitled to receive under existing policies before developing new ones. Next, decide what benefits will be offered through your mandated time off program (especially if this is an extended leave like a month-long sabbatical). Finally, document these benefits by creating an employee handbook that clearly states when employees should expect their first paycheck following the start date for their leave period(s).

As with any benefits program, adapt accordingly. As your company grows and the needs of your employees evolve, so should your vacation policy (among others).

Lead by example and reinforce. Employees should feel like they can use their time off in any way they choose without feeling like they are sacrificing their job security or productivity. Forcing people to take time off seems like an easy sell: who doesn’t want more time to enjoy their personal lives? But the truth is that toxic workplace culture has long been instilled in employees, making people feel scared to take time off, like they don’t deserve to relax or put their well-being ahead of work projects and OKRs.

If you really want people to get out of the office, go on vacation yourself. As a leader, people will follow your example, including taking time to rest and recharge.

Setting and supporting boundaries helps, too. When employees are away, make sure they’re completely offline. A team approach helps ensure this happens:

  • Make sure employees know when a co-worker is on vacation and not to disturb them.
  • Kindly remind them that email and communication tools allow scheduled messages (a beautiful invention) to honor time boundaries.
  • Be picky about what you message about to ensure they’re not inundated with emails that could have waited for their return or issues that others could have solved.

How much time off should a company mandate?

Whether a mandatory PTO policy accompanies a bank or unlimited vacation days, it’s important to determine how many days you expect employees to take off. There are a couple of ways to approach this: require employees to take off a specified amount of time intermittently or in one consecutive chunk. For example, a policy may allow employees to take at least one consecutive 5-day vacation each year or one day off each month to make a three-day weekend.

Some employers set a minimum number of days to take off quarterly or annually and leave the decision of when up to employees. Goldman Sachs, for example, requires staff to take 15 days off each year. It was a move to improve retention and morale by giving everyone a much-needed break. Similarly, marketing firm We Are Rosie mandates at least 5 days off quarterly to combat employees not using days because they feel guilty about taking time off.

In a survey of 1,000 employees, Cornerstone found 87% believed three-day weekends were more beneficial in alleviating stress than longer vacations. It also helps avoid everyone taking off at once during the holidays (for fear of the use-it-or-lose-it policies some states still allow), hoarding days to roll over to next year, or cash out—all of which are counterproductive to work-life integration.

The workforce has had to manage and overcome a lot in the last two years—a pandemic, a recession, and now sweeping layoffs as the holidays approach. So it’s no wonder stress levels are high. Still, half of employees won’t take time off unless forced to, and fear of layoffs will likely compound this. As an employer, you can help your team and bottom line by recommitting to work-life integration through mandated time off policies.