Should workplaces be giving us a week off work to cope with pandemic burnout?

It sounds dreamy at first.

‘Company gives all staff a week off to recover from the stress of the pandemic,’ the headlines proclaim, to be quote-tweeted by everyone wishing their workplace would do the same.

Businesses ranging from LinkedIn to Nike have declared that they’ll give teams a week off in an effort to combat mass burnout following Covid-19, while others, such as Dosh, have newly allowed for long weekends, or are offering bonuses.

These moves are an answer to a very real problem of people being left absolutely exhausted by the collective trauma of a pandemic.

But are they actually doing us any good? Or are they just a way for businesses to get bonus points for the appearance of caring about employees’ wellbeing?

The first thing to take a look at is the company’s existing policies.

If a company declares it’s giving staff special time off, we need to check if this is actually ‘extra’. Is this temporarily rectifying a smaller-than-average annual leave allowance?

In the US, for example, the paid time off offering tends to be less than workers expect in the UK. At Nike, one of the companies offering that extra week off, the allowance can be as low as 15 days a year.

It’s also worth noting workplace attitudes to sick leave, particularly when it comes to mental ill health.

If your office has a culture of presenteeism, and you don’t feel able to take time off when you’re mentally unwell, the sudden offer of leave only in case of a pandemic might sting a little. Burnout is burnout – if a company only seems bothered when they can pin it to Covid, that might be little more than a PR spiel.

Then there’s the question of whether a week off, even with all the best intentions, will actually do anything to quell the impact of burnout.

Why so many of us are experiencing burnout due to the pandemic:

Counsellor Alexandra Lees says: ‘During the pandemic the way we saw ourselves and the world changed, leaving many feeling helpless, derailing our lives and our internal systems. We were unable to make meaning of what was happening and often there were no answers or certainty to reassure us. People’s emotional resilience was hit hard.

‘Whether impacted directly by Covid or not, we witnessed bereavement on a huge scale.

‘The media focus and repetition of pandemic news enhanced this vicarious traumatisation; overwhelming statistics and frightening stories of loss further triggered feelings of traumatic stress.

‘And yet through all of this, we had to carry on working. Those of us who could, had to work from home, but perhaps it was more accurate to say “living at work”, as boundaries between work and life became blurred and switching off became harder, if not impossible.

‘The impacts of the pandemic were so hard hitting it is unrealistic to expect that we could just bounce back.’

‘Short term, a week off could help if someone is ill or has work-related stress and burnout,’ explains Soma Ghosh, a career happiness mentor. ‘However if they go back to work they may experience a cycle of burnout again and this doesn’t actually fix the problem.

‘Especially if the workload and ways to manage work while working from home isn’t addressed.’

The fact is, if there are deep issues related to work – such as burnout, boredom, or the collective trauma of the pandemic – a couple of days away doesn’t really solve them… it just gives workers a fleeting break. When they return, the impact of the past year won’t have magically gone away – and neither will any existing workplace culture issues that contributed to poor mental health in the first place.

Companies need to take a serious look at what may be causing job dissatisfaction and despondency in staff. It’s easy to place the blame squarely on Covid-19, but what about other factors, such as a lack of flexibility, minimal praise and feedback, excessive workloads, and poor management?

Even if it is the case that burnout has been brought on entirely due to the pandemic, the benefit of a week off depends quite a bit on what an individual does with that time.

Taking space to genuinely recharge and reflect on what needs to change could be helpful. Using that week to rush through life admin, or just wallowing on the sofa and watching TV, perhaps not so productive.

‘If workplaces offer a week off it would be encouraged that staff are supported with how to help themselves during this time,’ Counselling Directory member Claire Elmes tells us. ‘Everyone has been affected differently so there is unlikely to be a “one size fits all solution”. It depends on whether people have previous unresolved trauma, losses and significant life events on top of how resilient they are and how good their coping strategies are.’

Psychotherapist Alexandra Lee suggests giving staff the choice of when to take their week off, so that rather than one mass break, people can use ‘a week’s worth of stigma-free wellbeing paid days without notice as and when they need’.

All in all, the expert view is unanimous: a week off from work for Covid burnout is a nice idea (and you’ll know if it’s coming from a genuine place of care or if it’s an attempt at a PR spin, if only based on how big a deal your managers make out of the offer), but it cannot be the only thing workplaces do.

Signs you’re experiencing burnout:

  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Getting sick more often
  • Gum disease
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low mood
  • Being unable to stop thinking about work
  • Impaired memory
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Feeling irritable or snapping at people

What should they be doing to actually tackle burnout, you may ask?

Time off isn’t a bad place to start. But after that…

Soma says: ‘I really think a few things need to happen.

‘There needs to be awareness around burnout from teams and regular discussions around this with a manager.

‘Secondly there needs to be an adaptive approach to working for someone who may have a pattern of burnout, and this should be where HR and occupational health need to be supporting staff.’

Soma adds that we need to normalise discussions of burnout and stress, and make sure no one feels shame for not coping.

‘Workplace culture needs to change,’ agrees Claire. ‘Many companies either don’t have a wellbeing strategy or it doesn’t cover everything it needs to.

‘Hybrid working, time off in lieu, the ability to have flexible working days, to be able to include appropriate self care within the working day, are all great ideas.’

Life Coach Directory Kanika Tandon backs this up, and suggests bringing in expert support.

‘Companies need to make life coaches, therapists, counsellors accessible to employees easily,’ she explains. ‘Increased focus on mental health, physical health and overall well-being of employees is definitely called for.’

Ensuring there’s a proper understanding of what’s causing burnout and unhappiness for staff will be key, rather than trying to seek the easiest quick fix.

‘Research has identified key factors that make burnout more likely some of these are: work overload, lack of control, insufficient rewards, breakdown of workplace community,’ says Alexandra. ‘Business must work hard to address these factors, welcoming a change in the workplace culture and an increase in flexibility and trust.’

Kanika agrees: ‘The focus needs to shift to an increasing sense of wellbeing in the employees. Each company is different and enough feedback from the employees will let the company know what the employees truly want and what will work for them.’

The first step in all of this is to ensure workplaces take seriously the impact of the past year, yes, but also all issues with mental health.

Bosses need to be committed to actually caring about employees’ wellbeing, and understanding that this needs to be a priority.

‘Compassion, a space to share and person-to-person understanding is a great place to start,’ Alexandra tells us. ‘Understanding that each member of staff has been uniquely impacted by the pandemic and that some people processed the impacts of the pandemic better than others.

‘Even pre-Covid, burnout was a regular, chronic, experience that wears a workforce down, making staff unable to deal with stressors in the way they would normally.

‘Given the past year and a half it is unrealistic to presume that many members of business are not close to or currently burning out.

‘Burnout can feel very isolating, a lot of people may be struggling thinking it is just them, and that they are unable to let anyone know.

‘Breaking down this barrier is essential, it allows staff to be open and honest. If this culture is welcomed from the top and sustained throughout a business I believe it can only strengthen a team and their output.

‘Ultimately, if your staff burnout, so will your business. Bosses need to realise that investing in their staff’s mental wellbeing can only benefit their business.’

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