Taking Time Off Won’t Fix Employee Mental Health

For too long, employers have leveraged time off to support employee mental health. We’ve all heard managers or supervisors respond like this to a stressed and weary employee: “You’re feeling tired? Take some time off and recharge your batteries!” or, “You’re feeling overwhelmed? Use your PTO and step away for a bit.”

Unfortunately, anxiety and depression are worse for employees during the pandemic. But employers continue to rely primarily on time off as the solution. In fact, some companies are actually increasing the amount of paid time off they’re providing.

More than one in five companies are offering employees more vacation time this year, according to a survey from the executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Some employers have gone a little further by encouraging employees to unplug, and they’ve designated time during the week or month for employees to do just that.

  • One technology startup declared the last Friday of every month as an office holiday.
  • A 50-person business-to-business marketing agency in Texas permanently revised its office hours to be based on what it calls a “three-day weekend” calendar.
  • Technology giant Cisco last year introduced “unplug” days.

Other companies have gone even further to encourage employees to take time off. PricewaterhouseCoopers started paying employees to use their PTO—offering $250 for taking a full week off.

Yes, taking time off helps. But it isn’t helpful when it’s mandated as a preventive measure or treatment for burnout, stress, and other symptoms of mental ill-health.

Time Off Is a Double-edged Sword

As Erin L. Kelly, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, told Forbes, a vacation declaration essentially pushes some people to take unpaid leave when their families might be under great financial stress. And with the continuing high unemployment rate, people who feel lucky to be employed may think they’re taking a risk if they take vacation days.

Employees also may feel legitimate anxiety around taking time off, according to Kelly. In their minds, admitting they need a break will mark them as less committed and make them vulnerable to poor performance reviews. It can also result in missed opportunities for good assignments or shifts, or they may be targeted in the next round of layoffs.

So, will employees really take advantage of permanent three-day weekends and Friday afternoons without meetings? Will they really unplug when they’re scheduled to? Statistics say they won’t, and especially not workers in the U.S. American workers left an average of 33 percent of their paid time off on the table last year.

Better: Supporting Mental Health Every Day, for Everyone

Every mind is unique, and every person’s situation is different. And just as we all exist somewhere on a very wide spectrum of physical health, we are every day somewhere on a very broad spectrum of mental health: from barely coping to abundantly thriving, from totally disengaged to fully and productively engaged, from struggling to stay focused minute-to-minute to sustaining razor-sharp attentiveness.

And it’s not just about how we feel when we’re at work. What happens at work doesn’t stay at work, and what happens at home doesn’t stay at home. This is even more true as we continue to navigate the uncertain and constantly stressful impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Research has already proved the importance of focusing on a healthy work/life balance, of supporting employees to be more mentally fit in every area of their lives, personal and professional. Giving employees more time off is only a first step in preventing more frequent and more serious incidents of poor mental health in our workforces.

9 Steps Toward Greater Employee Mental Health

To be as effective as possible, consider these nine aspects of a proactive and preventative mental well-being strategy.


Ensure every employee has access to all of the mental health services and programs you offer— anytime, anywhere. A digital approach, for example, allows all employees to engage with resources however and whenever they want.


Use data and insights to influence your wider strategy. Data on uptake, engagement, outcomes, improvement, and the collective well-being of your organization will help you track and understand the impact of your initiatives.


Empower your managers to support mental health. Four in five managers believe it is part of their job to intervene when an employee shows signs of depression—but only one in three managers report having appropriate training to intervene.


Empower employees to measure and manage their mental health and well-being. Online tools are available to help employees track changes in their moods and emotions, to better identify triggers, and ultimately be able to make better-informed choices about how best to respond.


Cater to a diverse range of needs and preferences. Everyone’s mental health and well-being are diverse, vibrant, and ever-changing. It’s also essential to consider how a diverse population will have different preferences, requirements, and outcomes.


Have experts in their respective fields design your initiatives. Research has shown that only a small proportion of the thousands of mental health applications on the market are backed by clinical evidence.


Make your employee communication aspirational and engaging; talk about mental health as something to aspire to rather than hide from. The terminology and tone you use can have a significant impact on employee perceptions of your program.


Combine a top-down and bottom-up approach to communication. Success demands an always-on communication strategy that continually reminds employees of the support, tools, and networks available to them.


Direct employees to reactive support when necessary. Ideally, treatment-based support strategies need to be timely and offer a sense of choice in available treatment. One example: instant access 24/7 to your employee assistance program (EAP) with the touch of a button.

Key Takeaways

A proactive, whole-person approach to supporting employee mental health will create a culture of caring and support, an environment in which employees can express their emotional and mental challenges, and a workplace where mental health is understood, nurtured, and celebrated day in and day out.

The Blanket of Bereavement Policy Is Chilly

Bereavement, the period of time of mourning following the death of a beloved person. It can be one of the most devastating experiences for many of us. For employers, we are forced to tie metrics to this extremely personal experience with our bereavement policies. We literally quantify our employees’ grief.

This begs me to question why we thought this was a good idea in the first place?

We knew it was unethical and downright cruel to ask someone to clock-in after experiencing a death in the family. At its core, we thought we were simply showing our staff we care. We wanted them to grieve. We wanted them to heal. Therefore, we implemented, what is now considered standard, three days off. Not only did we put a maximum number of days employees are allowed to mourn, we also implemented stipulations around who it is okay to mourn for. Most policies today encompass immediate family members: Mom, Dad, kids, etc. The logic behind this criterion was to ensure no one took advantage of the policy right?

While there are plenty of articles out there detailing how companies need to give more than three days and broaden the criteria to encompass those outside of immediate family, what I advocate for is much different – eliminate this blanket policy we call bereavement all together.

Here are the top 3 issues with bereavement policies: 

#1 The experience of grief is unique to each individual

Some of us deal with grief by powering through. We stay busy. Out of sight, out of mind. I remember working for a VP of HR when she lost her mother. We had the standard 3 days and she did not take a single day. When I asked her why she said, “If I go home it will just make it worse. I want to be here where I am useful.” I told her I understood and left it alone. However, many of her peers were not as observant. She had a revolving door for days on end of people asking why she had not taken her three bereavement days. I ended up asking her to share that experience with me a few months after and oh boy… did she vent. She went on and on and on about how thankful she was that people cared but how their constant questioning about why she didn’t use the days made her grief so much worse. She was constantly forced to think about her loss. For this HR pro, the very policy she implemented to help others cope with grief, actually caused her more grief.

#2 Sometimes the passing of a pet is worse than the passing of human

It’s hard to imagine for some, but the death of a pet is a significant loss for many people. I lost my best buddy a couple years ago – a Jack Russell. To say I was a train wreck would be an understatement. I literally could not function, let alone put on a pretty face and be productive at work. On the contrary, had my stepmother passed away I could have walked into work in a day as nothing had happened. The criteria stipulating who we are allowed to take time off to grieve for does nothing to benefit our staff.

#3 Some need a couple hours, some need a couple months or even years

The problem with telling our staff they have 3 days to cry it out is that everyone handles grief in different ways and on different time tables. Many would assume that a parent losing their child needs much more than 3 days to “get over it”. Others, depending on who they lost, relationship with that person, so on and so forth, may only need a day. The 3 day rule, or any fixed measurement period for that matter, is not conducive to our overall goal which is for our employee to heal.

I challenge all HR Pros to eliminate their bereavement policies and implement a catch all bucket called time off. Determine what your company can budget for paid time away and let our staff use this as they see fit – sick days, I had to put Lassie down days, vacation in Europe or even I’m hung-over and can’t get off the couch days. Should your employee need more than the allotted paid time off, let them take it unpaid. The circumstances surrounding why they need to be out is irrelevant to the company and the budget. This does not mean we do not care about them, it means we are allowing them to tell us what they need.

Hire people you trust to do a good job, treat them like adults, take the time to align their values with the company, continually invest in their professional and personal development and let them determine their best way to grieve a loved ones’ passing.

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Digital Breaks: Rethinking Connectivity #TChat Preview

(Editor’s Note: Are you looking for a full review of this week’s events and resources? Read: “Your Digital Domain: Who’s The Boss? #TChat Recap.”)

Reset Connections — Reclaim Your Life?

How did you manage your digital footprint during the July 4th holiday? Did you keep your communication channels open? Did you selectively time-out? Or did you leave it all behind and go “off the grid”? Whatever your level of connectedness — how well did that work for you, personally and professionally?

When it’s time for a vacation, are the tools and technologies that make it incredibly easy to connect with others making it incredibly difficult for you to walk away? If so, you’re not alone. Finding the perfect digital fit isn’t easy for any of us in today’s hyper-connected world of work.

Busier: Not Always Better

So, in an era where vacation time is rapidly vanishing, and digital demands are all around us, what can we do to improve our productivity, our peace of mind, and our sense of professional power? Furthermore, what can business leaders and managers do to encourage individuals and teams to optimize their work-life fit?

As summer kicks into high gear, these issues are top-of-mind across the TalentCulture community. It’s a perfect time to discuss solutions. And that’s why we’ve asked two social-media savvy work-life experts to guide us at #TChat forums this week:

#TChat Sneak Peek Video

To kick-off this week’s conversation, Judy joined me for a quick G+ Hangout, where she recommended a smart summer course-of-action:

So tell us…how would you define the ideal “vacation” in today’s hyper-connected world of work? If you could shift your digital work habits to reduce your stress and improve your productivity, what would you change? This is one topic that we all understand. So, please join us, and bring your concerns, ideas and suggestions!

#TChat Events: Digital Vacation vs. Digital Redux


Listen to the #TChat Radio show

#TChat Radio — Wed, July 10 at 6:30pmET / 3:30pmPT

Judy and Heidi team-up for a interview with our hosts, Meghan M. Biro and Kevin W. Grossman. Listen live and dial-in with your questions and feedback!

#TChat Twitter — Wed, July 10 at 7pmET / 4pmPT

Immediately following the radio show, our conversation with Judy opens wide, as she moderates our community discussion on the #TChat stream. We welcome anyone with a Twitter account to join us, as we exchange ideas about these questions:

Q1: Do you (or can you) disconnect from your digital “hive mind”? Why or why not?

Q2: How do we get more time with family, friends and colleagues without compromising our work?

Q3: How does the enterprise balance our personal freedoms and online security issues?

Q4: What can leaders do to encourage digital vacations/resets without compromising productivity?

Q5: What technologies today help us connect and disconnect simultaneously? Good/bad?

To prepare for our discussion, check out Meghan M. Biro’s post at The Digital Realities of Work/Life Blending. Also, throughout the week, we’ll keep the discussion going on the #TChat Twitter feed and on our new LinkedIn Discussion Group. So please join us share your questions, ideas and opinions.

We’ll see you on the stream!