Why businesses should celebrate time off

Calvin Benton explains how ‘always on’ working cultures are contributing to burnout, and the importance of leaders taking action to change this 

Burnout continues to be a big problem in the workplace. Spill, an all-in-one mental health support for businesses via Slack, works with more than 200 companies and burnout is probably the most common topic that comes up when we speak to HR leaders about the challenges facing their teams right now. 

And the stats back this up. In a recent survey of 2,000 office workers that we conducted in April, half (51 per cent) of UK workers said that they have experienced symptoms of burnout over the past 12 months. Despite the growing public awareness of burnout in recent years and the gradual destigmatisation of mental ill-health in the workplace, only one in five of those who experienced burnout took any time off for it.

When we asked them what stopped them, being too busy (36 per cent), not feeling comfortable to ask their manager (27 per cent) and feeling guilty about taking time off (25 per cent) were highlighted as key barriers to requesting leave. Clearly, we have a way to go in tackling the stigma issue.

Understanding the causes of burnout

Last year, we took a deep dive into the causes of burnout. Interestingly, although rest and a manageable workload are important, they’re only one of various psychological factors that contribute to the likelihood of employees experiencing burnout. Not having ownership or meaningful goals at work, for example, are some of the other common things people with burnout highlight as a cause. 

And overwhelmingly, ‘always on’ working cultures are hotbeds for burnout. The ‘Elon Musk approach’ – the approach to work that values little sleep and 5am workouts – has been widely accepted as the key to success by tech companies from Silicon Valley to London’s Silicon roundabout. Dotted around co-working spaces and offices of the start-ups you’re likely to see phrases like ‘Get sh*t done’ and ‘Love the grind’. 

But if you value the mental wellbeing of your teams at all, you should recognise this approach to work is simply not sustainable, and it actually makes teams less effective in the longer term, decreasing productivity and employee retention. Three in 10 workers we surveyed said they had considered quitting during lockdown because of stress or exhaustion. 

Humans need rest to function

At the risk of stating the obvious, humans need proper rest to function properly. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, business leaders are the worst at taking time off. Our survey found that business leaders took, on average, just 65 per cent of their annual leave in 2020 compared with the average UK workforce who, despite the constraints of lockdown, took 80 per cent of their annual leave. 

As the founder of a start-up that’s experiencing rapid growth, I get it. Building a business is exciting: every week we’re releasing new features, we’re hitting new milestones and all the time the culture is being formed. Taking off a week can feel like missing out on a crucial part of the business’s journey. 

Taking time off becomes even trickier when you’re likely to be stuck at home during your annual leave, making it harder to put physical and mental distance in between you and work. As one of our developers put it, “the ROI of holiday has plummeted this year”. It’s tempting to just power through, telling yourself that you can rest at the end of the quarter, the end of the year, or when we reach our next funding round.

As a mental health start-up, our team is probably more psychologically conscious than most. But that doesn’t make us immune to burnout. In the past year, I’ve experienced symptoms of burnout while juggling a rapidly growing business and my own mental health. The irony is not lost on me. But knowing that we have created a culture that actively celebrates taking time off meant I didn’t feel the same shame or worry that I’d look weak by taking time off, like so many of the people we surveyed. I went on holiday (at home) and came back and made sure I promoted the positive effects it had had on my mood to the team.

Taking action over just building awareness

In Mental Health Awareness Month, which took place throughout May, we’ve been promoting the Spill Holiday Pledge to encourage business leaders to take action to create cultures that celebrate time off. The pledge asks leaders to commit to taking their full holiday allowance in 2021, add holiday as a key performance metric and introduce a recharge day. All things that have worked well for us so far at Spill. 

The response we’ve had has been overwhelming. More than 50 business leaders signed the pledge, with many of them coming forward to share their own experiences of burnout. Every time they do, burnout – and the importance of time off – becomes a little less stigmatised. 

As people managing people, we have a responsibility to not only be aware of the psychological impact of ‘always on’ working cultures, but to make proactive changes now that will help to build the psychologically safe working environments of the future. Now then, it’s time to take that holiday.

Calvin Benton is founder of Spill