Inside KPMG’s Companywide Breaks: ‘Recharging Is Vital’

Kathryn Mayer By Kathryn Mayer June 29, 2023

In 2014, consulting giant KPMG introduced a companywide winter break for its U.S. employees, shutting down offices from just before Christmas through the start of the new year—an idea which, unsurprisingly, was immensely popular among employees. "We got some amazing feedback from our people about how different it was to be off and disconnected when everybody else was off and disconnected," explained Jason LaRue, KPMG's national managing partner of talent and culture.

Five years later, after doing a total rewards optimization, the firm sought feedback from employees about what they wanted. Among other things workers desired was more time off. "One of the things they told us was that they valued their time off, but they wished they had more time off that they can take when they knew that they weren't going to be asked to get involved with things or answer questions—where they could really, truly unplug," LaRue said.

As a result, the company in 2019 added a summer shutdown to the mix, offering employees a second collective week off in addition to individual paid time off. This year, the break will be July 3-7.

KPMG has also added a summer jump-start program, designed to let people start their Fridays a little bit earlier from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

The extra break is just one initiative the consulting company with roughly 40,000 U.S. workers has implemented to help improve employees' mental health—a focus that has become even more important, LaRue said, as employees struggle with stress, anxiety and other issues as a result of the pandemic, inflation and other factors.

For a look into KPMG's collective breaks and other mental health initiatives, SHRM Online spoke to LaRue.

SHRM Online: KPMG is a major employer with thousands of employees. How do you manage having so many employees away at the same time?

LaRue: The big thing for us is there's a lot of planning that goes into it. We start reminding people [months ahead] that it's coming up and encouraging them to think about planning their work around it. Then we continue to do so all the way up through the actual time. Some folks won't have the ability to take time off during that window, and so we give them the flexibility to take it another time. The vast majority of our people are often fully disconnected, but [for] those who can't and have some sort of client deadline, or something of that nature, [we are] in a position to be able to shift it around. We have some folks who are a part of our IT help desk and things that like who have to be available as well, and so we manage those calendars accordingly. But our data shows us that the vast majority of our people are able to be away and fully disconnected.

SHRM Online: Tell me a little bit more about the difference between, say, having an employee who's taking off a week as part of their regular vacation time, and then being away for a week as part of this kind of collective company break. How is that mindset different? What's the different result that you see from this?

LaRue: We recently did some surveying of our people around what they thought was expected of them from a response perspective relative to emails, texts, etc., just to get a sense around what that looked like. And what became clear is people have a natural inclination to want to be prompt responders. They think, "Somebody's asking me a question, that person must need my help, I want to dig in, I want to be helpful." And that's great and certainly presents a great client-facing attitude. But the challenge is that also makes it hard to feel like you're away.

The beauty of these firmwide shutdowns is that the prompts just go away. I can tell you from my own personal experience of having been through all of the summer shutdowns and all the winter shutdowns, the total number of emails that you're likely to get on during any one of those breaks is well south of 10. Not only is the activity gone to nearly zero, but on top of that, people are extra attentive to not wanting to send something to not trigger the want-to-help response.

SHRM Online: What does this accomplish?

LaRue: The main thing that we want to get out of it is this ability for people to be able to feel like there is absolutely no pressure for them to pay attention to any KPMG-related activity. We don't want them checking their emails, we don't want them having to have conversations with each other, we don't want them working on deliverables. We want them to just go and really disconnect. We know disconnection is a big part of being able to stay charged over a longer period of time. Productivity is really a function of health and capability. Both of those things have to be true in order to be able to optimize performance and productivity.

Helping our people stay charged by doing this twice a year—and then having a generous paid-time-off policy on top of it when they can take time at their own discretion—really comes together and gives them the opportunity to feel that way.

[The collective breaks] also have this really nice, fun social aspect to them, where people go on their winter or summer break and they come back and they tell their common stories. There's an opportunity to really share, "What did you do? What was your experience like?" It really does create a sense of kinship that's valuable and able to make people feel like our community is really thriving and healthy.

SHRM Online: That sounds like a surprising benefit that you didn't really anticipate happening, which seems all the more important with what we're seeing in the past few years where there's been a bit more isolation.

LaRue: That's right. We operate in a hybrid environment across all of our practices, and for sure, there's a lot more folks who are working more independently than they would have otherwise been pre-pandemic, where they would have been in office and bumping into each other on a more regular basis. And so creating those additional social fabric opportunities—reasons for people to talk to each other about something other than whatever they might be talking about in a particular meeting—is a really great way to keep our social community healthy.

SHRM Online: How does this all tie in to your mental health initiatives?

LaRue: In order to try to drive an optimized environment for productivity and performance, to really make people feel like they want to be here and that they're able to succeed in their roles, they have to have good feelings and good outcomes on both of those dimensions. The ability to recharge on a regular basis and be able to feel like you're really recharging is vital.

We've also been doing some other things around mental health, like seminars and events, and recently we had a "mental health jump-start" after a mental health [event] we had, where we encouraged people to do something for their own mental well-being, whether that was meditation or reflection or going for a walk with their family. We also offer 10 free counseling sessions to employees through our [employee assistance program]. We are really trying to normalize the concept of, "Everybody has mental well-being they need to care for."

SHRM Online: What's behind this focus on mental health?

LaRue: The topic of mental health isn't a new one, but I think the willingness to talk about it publicly on a broad societal basis definitely has evolved as a post-pandemic perspective, which is awesome. Coming out of the pandemic, there's an increased focus on it, and it has pervaded into our culture as well.

It really goes back to the idea that you can have the most capable people in the world, but if they aren't healthy, they're not going to be able to deliver for you in the way they know they can at their very best. As businesses, there's a very easy return on investment for us to say, "Health is the right thing. It's the morally right thing for everybody." But on top of that, there's a tremendous amount of business opportunity for us if we can really optimize the health of our people, so they can feel like they can give us their best when they're working for KPMG.

SHRM Online: What advice do you have for other HR leaders?

LaRue: No matter what business cycle you're in, the health and well-being of your employees is always going to be critical. The investments that you're making around certain things like compensation, etc., will probably vary depending on the business cycle that you're in. But you have to think deeply about the fact that the workforce is a long game, and making sure that people feel supported, no matter what the business conditions are like, is really critical and important. That's how we look at it, and we would encourage all of our colleagues in the profession to take a look at it that way as well.



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