time off

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.

Accessibility

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.

Data

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.

Training

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.

Measurement

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.

Variety

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.

Credibility

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.

Tone

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.

Visibility

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.

Signposting

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.