Late last year, seemingly out of the blue, a high-performing employee at Simplus planned to resign. "She performed well on her projects, and clients were happy with her," says Kathy Brown, HR director at the 533-employee global company supporting sales operations based in Salt Lake City. "She needed a break. I asked if she'd consider taking a leave of absence instead of quitting. She immediately broke down crying, indicating her surprise we would do that for her. I explained it's perfectly acceptable to take time off and her job would be there when she returned." The employee took a month off, and when she returned, she was happier and more productive.
The story highlights a common situation: After more than a year of pandemic fallout and emotionally charged cultural changes, workers are at their breaking points. "Employees have experienced a lot of change in their work environments over the past year and a half—including new safety protocols, business processes and remote-work structures," says Leslie Norris, chief HR officer at South Federal Carolina Credit Union, a financial institution with 501 employees headquartered in North Charleston, S.C. "We can't deny the fatigue and detachment some employees feel now."
Many workers faced challenges they hadn't experienced prior to the pandemic, Norris notes. They lacked child care, shared remote workspaces with spouses and children, and assumed the role of teachers in addition to their full-time jobs. Despite those challenges, many companies report that employee productivity rose last year, and by a lot in some cases.
The result? "Workers are burned out," Brown says. "The pandemic took a huge toll on people's mental well-being."
According to a recent online survey by Spring Health, 76 percent of U.S. adult workers are currently experiencing burnout, which is defined as exhaustion, both physical and mental, that causes decreased morale, poor work performance and increased turnover. Burnout manifests in other ways, too, such as increased alcohol consumption. For instance, a research study that appeared in JAMA Network Open found that women consumed 41 percent more alcohol in 2020 than in 2019.
Michelle Wax, founder of the American Happiness Project, a mental health program in South Boston, Mass., explains, "Employees are struggling to find a healthy work/life balance. With many people working from home, it's easy to stay connected throughout the day. Our brains need time to disconnect from the constant cycle of news, work and social media."
Moreover, the problem isn't diminishing as the nation reopens: In a March 2021 study by staffing firm Robert Half, 44 percent of workers said they are more burned out on the job today than they were in 2020.
And the pandemic isn't the only reason for burnout, according to Melanie Langsett, leader of rewards, recognition and well-being at Deloitte U.S in New York City. "Stresses occurred not only due to the pandemic, but also due to the election, social unrest and the political environment," she says.
When asked what would help decrease their burnout symptoms, 30 percent of employees said receiving more paid time off (PTO) would make a difference, according to the Spring Health study. But addressing burnout isn't just about giving employees more vacation time. It's also about making sure they actually take the leave they have available
In a recent survey by Vacation Renter, 41 percent of employees reported taking less time off in 2020 than in previous years. So how can employers embolden workers to take vacations and beat burnout? Some leaders offer suggestions:
Lead by example. "Actions speak louder than words," Wax says. "Oftentimes, we notice managers take less time off, which makes their direct reports uncomfortable taking vacation. Even if [managers] do take time, they often are still checking e-mail and connected to work."
But they need to disconnect. "It's important for leadership to model taking time off," Langsett says, adding that Deloitte employees have some fun with it: "We have a cultural norm that on our out-of-office messaging, we say things like, 'I'm on the beach with my toes in the sand.' "
Melanie Foley, executive vice president and chief talent and enterprise services officer at Liberty Mutual Insurance, a Boston-based global property and casualty insurer with 45,000 employees, took one small step to model this behavior for her team. "Early on in the pandemic, I instituted no meetings during the lunch hour," she says. "I'd tell people we had to find a different time to meet. I'd use that hour to step away from my computer and go for a walk with my daughter, who was also working from home. It was important for me to be consistent and deliberate about creating time for self-care during the day. As leaders, it's important for us to set the tone."
At South Carolina Federal Credit Union, leaders encourage employees to take time off by openly sharing vacation plans. "A few days before she was leaving for a trip, a vice president changed her Zoom background to a beach," Norris says. "When people asked her about it, she'd answer, 'I'm going there in three days! Don't e-mail me!' " It was an instant conversation starter, and it inspired her teams to start planning time away.
"Another tactic that's worked well is when senior leaders share photos of themselves on PTO in our employee-only Facebook group," Norris says. "The photos are usually of a manager standing in front of a scenic view or interesting attraction with a caption that says, 'Enjoying my PTO—thanks for letting me unplug for a few days to reset!' Not only does this help our employees get to know their management team, it also sets the tone that everyone in our company needs time to recharge."
Create vacation perks. Vacation stipends, annual company trips, random days off and other perks can inspire employees to disconnect from the office. For instance, 400-employee hospitality software company Cloudbeds offers workers the free use of two apartments, one in Sao Paulo and another in San Diego. Originally, the company used the apartments to save money on hotels for employees when they visited headquarters, but now the apartments are used by employees for vacations.
"They're always fully booked," says Adam Harris, founder and CEO of Cloudbeds. "Our employees have to use the same software internal booking engine [as our clients] and cannot stay more than 14 days. Even if there's business travel coming to San Diego, we prioritize the vacation time over a business trip.
"We also implemented companywide mandatory holidays," he adds, "including occasional Fridays off to inspire three-day weekend trips."
Reject unlimited PTO. At first blush, unlimited PTO sounds like a fantastic idea: Employees get all the time off they need to relax and tend to personal concerns, and employers don't have to worry about paying out accrued vacation time when employment ends. But the reality is employees at companies with unlimited PTO feel guilty taking any time off at all. "Companies that have unlimited PTO see employees take less time off," Langsett asserts.
A study by Namely.com confirms this: Employees with "unlimited" time off took 13 days per year on average compared with 15 days for employees with a definitive time-off policy. The outcome of "unlimited PTO," then, is burned-out employees who quit. Instead, companies that like the concept of unlimited PTO might consider adding a minimum time-off clause to ensure employees have all the time they need but don't feel guilty about taking it.
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Reconsider or tweak use-it-or-lose-it policies. While some companies find that use-it-or-lose-it policies force employees to take time off instead of banking it for some future vacation that never comes, other companies prefer to grant employees maximum flexibility. For instance, Deloitte allows workers to roll over PTO from year to year.
"Our workforce is very diverse," Langsett says. "We have some employees who want to take longer chunks of time to visit family in other countries. Or for those who are anticipating a life event, like getting married or having a child, they may want to increase time off, so we allow PTO to be rolled over."
That may be part of a growing trend. "I've seen a lot of organizations ditching use-it-or-lose-it policies," Norris says. "This is a smart move. It's time for employers to give people the flexibility to use their time off when it will benefit them the most. Our employees have always been able to carry up to 240 hours of PTO from year to year."
Another option, especially in light of the instability in 2020, is to have a "rollover window." For example, faculty members at the University of Wisconsin System have until October 2021 to use vacation hours granted in 2020 or lose them. According to a recent report from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, Employee Benefits in a COVID-19 World–Six-Month Update, 18 percent of companies made changes to benefits plans as a result of the pandemic to allow rollover options for workers unable to use current paid time off.
For instance, financial services company Capital One made several modifications to its PTO policies, such as by giving nonexempt associates an additional week of paid time off and increasing family care time for exempt employees from 24 to 40 hours. "For our newest associates, we waived the 90-day waiting period for PTO," says Fay Manolios, head of total rewards at the 50,000-employee company headquartered in McLean, Va. "We allowed unused hours to be carried over, as well as the ability to cash out any unused time."
Follow time-off etiquette. "You can have the best PTO policy, but if you have a culture that doesn't encourage and enable people to unplug, what's the point?" Langsett says. "Culture has to emphasize disconnecting fully when one is away. PTO etiquette is a guide on how those who are not on vacation treat those who are and a guide for those who are taking time off on how to really disconnect. Part of that is giving permission to those individuals on vacation. Hold them accountable. If they answer an e-mail, say, 'Unless it's mission-critical, why are you sending me e-mails? You're on vacation. Go back to your vacation.' "
For vacation time to be restorative, employees need to truly unplug, meaning no e-mails, texts or phone calls. "Leaders must also be protective of their employees' time when they take PTO," Norris says. "You shouldn't contact an employee who's on PTO unless there's a time-sensitive crisis that requires their direct involvement. Leaders should ensure their teams have good contingency plans in place when people are on PTO. Employees won't be able to truly unplug and disconnect if their phone rings during the day or they have one eye glued to their inbox."
Enact forced shutdowns. Mandatory company shutdowns have been used in manufacturing for decades as a time to retool factories, but service companies are beginning to realize the benefits of the practice. When the entire company is closed for a week or two, employees feel absolved of their duties since every other worker is on vacation, too.
For example, Deloitte has had shutdowns, or Collective Disconnects as they're called, for the last three years. "We have had Collective Disconnects where we do a full shutdown in the last week of December, and they have proved to be so highly valued by our people that we see an increase in engagement and productivity when we return," Langsett says. This year, the company is adding a summer Collective Disconnect for the first five days in July. "Employees still have their PTO throughout the year," she explains, "but the Collective Disconnects allow everyone to focus on rest and recovery at the same time."
Urge employees to take vacations. A significant share (37 percent) of employees say the most helpful action employers can take is to track days off and encourage employees to take a break when they have gone a long time without one, according to Vacation Renter.
Langsett does that with her team. "I can see how long it's been since someone took a vacation and what they have planned," she says. "Does my team have plans to use their time off? If not, I can send a behavioral nudge: 'I notice you haven't taken any time off in a while and you don't have anything planned in the scheduling system. I encourage you to get those plans in ASAP. What can I do to help align your workload to make that possible?' You have to start a conversation."
"A lot of employees have come to me over the past year to talk about how they feel tired, uninspired and burned out," Norris says. "My advice has been the same every time: Take PTO, even if you're going to sit at home and binge watch a TV show. Be a tourist in your own city. Even if you don't have a vacation planned, you can still get a lot of benefits from taking a day off. Anytime I referenced PTO as a method of self-care, employees were more likely to take it. I started incorporating that messaging into the conversations I was having, and I saw a noticeable difference in the number of employees who left my office and requested PTO shortly after."
Leaders who don't encourage employees to take vacation time will begin to see a wave of resignations. Employees are at the ends of their ropes. Without rest, they will let go.
Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.
SHRM provides advice and resources to help employees avoid burnout and encourage them to take time away from work.
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