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Can Mandatory Time Off Prevent Burnout?

We know that the answer to preventing and reducing burnout isn’t to simply ‘do more’. In fact, it’s the ‘doing’ without allowing the space for ‘being’ that can lead to burnout. Research tells us that productivity falls sharply after 50 hours per week and drops off a cliff after 55 hours. Additionally, not taking at least one full day off per week leads to lower hourly output overall.

While increases in stress are normal within our working environment, burnout isn’t. Burnout happens when the stress cycle continues to increase over time and isn’t successfully managed. It is the result of multiple factors in the work environment and is caused by a progressive onset of stress. We experience stress when the job demands we face – physical, emotional, or otherwise – are more significant than the resources and bandwidth that we have.

Can Taking Breaks Prevent Burnout?

One of the ways we can reduce stress and complete the stress cycle is to take breaks, however, in order to better understand if breaks and vacations are a solution, we first need to understand the root cause of the burnout problem.

For example, if your team members are experiencing burnout as a direct result of unrealistic timelines and lack of support from their manager, taking a break only puts a pause on the burnout source. It can help for a short time, but team members will inevitably go back to the initial problem and experience the same continuous burnout. It’s vital that organizations are first equipped to understand the root causes of how burnout happens, and not just putting a plaster over a deep wound.

Your root causes can fall into one or more of these three categories:

The Self: Unhealthy patterns, beliefs and habits that prevent us from creating healthy work-life integration within ourselves as individuals (think a lack of self-awareness of our own needs or a trauma-based response of constantly overworking in order to achieve and feel worthy.)

The Leader: How leaders support their team, create safe and respectful environments, how they manage workloads and work with their employees to create manageable workloads and realistic timelines.

The Organization: How processes and culture are set up to support balance and wellbeing. Too many meetings, overwhelming and chaotic communication, promotion of constant working and encouragement to overwork. A lack of clarity on expected output and responsibilities.

The Quality Of Breaks and Vacations

Telling someone to take a break is easier said than implemented, especially when the individual is experiencing burnout symptoms. One of the symptoms of burnout is the inability to switch off from work. Couple this symptom with other factors such as:

  • Fast-paced environments or projects with tight deadlines
  • A under-resourced team
  • Constant connectivity to emails, notifications and work

It’s no wonder that it’s challenging for professionals to take a break, let alone start to focus on the quality of their breaks away from work. Company cultures need to be psychologically safe and promote the right the disconnect when team members are offline.

The Mindset Shift Needed To Take Breaks

Many professionals have an underlying fear of taking a real break and require a mindset shift and reframing to understand that while committing to time off might feel uncomfortable, it’s necessary and safe to do so. Indeed, taking time off has been shown to reduce stress, promote work-life balance and improve productivity. Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, most employees didn't take vacations often enough and over half (55%) didn't use all of their allotted paid vacation time.

So what keeps us from taking that high-quality break? How do we prevent ourselves from doing what we really need to? You might hear or say something like:

  • ‘I have way too much work to do, taking a vacation will only cause me stress when I come back to work.’
  • ‘My co-workers won’t survive without me.’
  • ‘Something major will happen while I’m gone and then I’ll be fired because I wasn’t there.’
  • ‘I’m working from home, I don’t need to take a proper break.’

How To Support a Mindset Shift

Just because we have a thought, doesn’t mean that it’s true. Let’s take one of the beliefs mentioned above and put it to the test,

‘My co-workers won’t survive without me.’

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is it true?

Is it true that your co-workers won’t survive without you?

  1. What’s the evidence to support that it’s absolutely true?

Collect all the evidence here. For example, did your coworkers not survive when you took vacation time before? Maybe you’re new to the job and haven’t taken a vacation yet, so look for evidence of other colleagues taking a vacation. Did their teams not survive without them?

  1. If no evidence is found, what’s the new empowering belief that is true?

So, you haven’t collected any evidence to support your original thought, meaning the belief that your colleagues won’t survive without you is false. What is true is that my colleagues will be absolutely fine without me.

  1. What’s the overwhelming evidence to support your new belief?

The evidence to support this is that I’ve taken many vacations before and, although I might have come back to a busy inbox, my colleagues were still living, breathing and fully functioning.

Conclusion

Of course, it’s not just a case of making vacation time mandatory for everyone, especially if our team members are experiencing heightened stress and, eventually, burnout. Organizations need to adapt their culture to an environment that promotes vacation, breaks from work and the right to disconnect just as much as they promote achievement, results and hard work.

Employers need to proactively encourage their employees to take days off and set expectations for the staffing they’ll need on occasions such as holiday weekends.

You can shout ‘TAKE A VACATION’ from the rooftops of your Zoom rooms but if you have a leadership team that isn’t actively taking time off and fully demonstrating that it’s possible to really switch off for a period of time then your efforts will fall flat. The best way to promote vacation internally is to first get your leaders to take a vacation, which supports leading by example and creates psychological safety amongst teams to do the same.

Another idea could be to introduce vacation times as a healthy KPI or OKR. This is a way to celebrate and recognize that our success as a company comes from focusing on our wellbeing, health and sustainability. It’s about celebrating the ‘being’ not just the ‘doing’. It’s saying to your team ‘it’s okay to take a holiday and, in fact, it’s actually something we promote and we celebrate internally.’

Finally, get clear on the root causes of burnout within your organization. If you do that, you’ll solve the problem at its core and empower everyone to take high-quality breaks and return without dread, anxiety and inevitable burnout cycles.