Will mandatory wellbeing leave actually help employees?

Enforced weeks off to combat burnout are only effective alongside a wider long-term strategy, argues Sam Fromson

The past year has presented countless challenges for employers. But the process of navigating them has yielded many lessons as well, particularly in the case of employee wellbeing – an issue that remains at the centre of employers’ attention. As a result, businesses are taking important, innovative steps to demonstrate a higher level of care for their employees to boost morale and productivity in the workplace and reduce talent churn.

Recently, one of the splashiest and most creative ideas of this sort has been the implementation of mandatory time off. The popular dating app Bumble kicked off the trend earlier this year by closing its offices for a week in June, and Nike has now followed suit, with staff expected to take time off (and maybe even make full use of their complimentary on-brand tracksuits) for at least a week.

At first glance, the logic is clear: lockdowns, border closures, and the viral implications of socialising have derailed the usual travel and leisure plans of many employees, who have in turn become increasingly reluctant to take the breaks they so badly need. 

And for those who take time away from the office, these days off are often devoid of alternative plans. As a result, many employees are likely to end up checking their emails or staying tapped into their work, depriving themselves of any real sense of escape – with company-wide leave the only way to hermetically seal their inboxes.

So will ‘forced leave’ ultimately prove an effective long-term strategy to boost employee wellbeing? There is no one answer; it all depends on how well employers can synthesise these breaks with their wider wellbeing strategies. Here is a closer look at why that’s the case.

Time off versus time on? Efficiency is the common thread 

One of the main concerns over forced time off is that the gratification may only be short lived. If employees generally experience stress and burnout, then abandoning their inboxes and clearing their diaries for a week might do wonders in the short term. 

However, a single relatively stress-free week may not make much of a long-term difference if employers expect employees to then return to the same old habits that previously fostered disengagement and burnout. 

But even short breaks are an essential part of maintaining peak office performance. Everyone needs time to recharge their batteries, look after their wellbeing, and spend quality time with their loved ones. Moreover, team-wide or company-wide breaks can even turn into bonding experiences that generate workplace pride and lift morale. 

Managers can maximise the impact of these breaks by designating times during workdays where employees are encouraged to reflect on their experiences from their holidays. Once everyone is back in the thick of things and the battery of their most recent recharge is slipping away, employees can benefit from sharing their experiences and takeaways during time off, rejuvenating themselves and their colleagues anew.

Breaks as part of a holistic wellbeing approach

How does time off fit within a larger employee wellbeing strategy? Let’s overlook some of the staples of a stereotypical employee engagement package – the office happy hour, the team meal out, the company-wide trip day. Yes, these are all wonderful standalone experiences where formative memories can be made. But these transitory perks don’t make much of an impact on employees’ wellbeing beyond the moment they are taking place (not to mention the fact that group activities are more difficult to arrange in our Covid reality). 

On the other hand, a holistic wellbeing strategy seeks to bolster employees’ mental, physical and financial wellbeing on a proactive, ongoing basis. Rather than designating ‘wellbeing time’, which paints wellbeing as a commodity or a reward, wellbeing should be built into a business’s psyche.

 Think of initiatives designed to offer employees tangible rewards for everyday activities which boost their mental or physical wellbeing, such as walking, bicycling, swimming, or meditation. Activities such as an office step count competition or a weekly guided meditation for the last 15 minutes on Wednesday are both great ways to boost camaraderie at work and health overall. The idea isn’t to compartmentalise wellbeing but to make it an integral habit.

Are forced breaks right for my business?

The proper answer to this question is not the most satisfying one. That is to say – it depends.

As with the solution to any challenge, approaching such a nuanced and complex situation with a ‘one size fits all’ mindset yields a clear risk of undermining the outcome. Compulsory vacation works best in situations where there’s already a clear and engaging wellbeing policy in place. And accordingly, it probably isn’t the place to start if there are still more basic steps that can and should be taken.

Companies like Nike and Bumble are established and experienced enough that their mandatory break approach won’t be perceived as a gimmick – that is a great thing. Bumble, for example, is well known for prioritising workplace wellbeing, from flexible working hours to motivational slogans around its offices. In its case, the hot press that it’s been getting is clearly justified. My only hope is that if and when other companies follow suit, they do so alongside other solutions that are right for their wellbeing strategy as a whole.

Sam Fromson is COO and co-founder of YuLife