Staff need more than duvet days to combat work-related stress

A day’s respite from the pressures of work is great, says Chris Parke, but it will do very little to solve the mental health crisis

With one in eight UK employees having taken time off work for stress in the last year, and 78 per cent of workers saying they have felt anxious or depressed because of their job, there’s clearly an urgent requirement for employers to provide wellbeing support.

And for those organisations looking for reasons beyond their corporate social responsibilities and generally being kind, caring companies, the knock-on effect is that mental health conditions being caused or exacerbated by work is undermining UK job quality and hitting businesses squarely in the wallet. Absence from work because of mental health issues is costing the UK economy an estimated £26bn per year, and Sir Vince Cable has even warned that the impact of mental ill-health is costing the UK more than Brexit.

To many leadership teams, the ‘forward thinking’ way to support employee wellbeing is to provide workers with the option to take a ‘duvet day’ – a concept that continues to divide opinion. To some, it’s a token millennial work perk. To others, it’s a sticking plaster for a bigger issue, and to the rest it’s an essential part of the modern HR toolkit.

The Oxford Dictionary describes a duvet day as “an unscheduled extra day's leave from work, taken to alleviate stress or pressure and sanctioned by one's employer”. In essence, it’s a sanctioned day off for employees to openly focus on their mental health without being penalised.

Duvet days are a step in the right direction, but companies must ensure that such initiatives are not skin-deep perks to attract talent – they must form part of a wider strategy.

Redefining the duvet day

The ‘always on’ culture that now pervades across all sectors and industries also often creates a ‘be strong’ ethos, leaving people uncomfortable or not confident in showing their emotions and feelings. As a result, this regularly leads to people reaching breaking point and either being signed off from work or just leaving altogether. The knock-on effect is the same: it deprives organisations of a rich and diverse talent pool.

Wellbeing can often struggle to get the right resourcing and attention it deserves, requiring clear accountability and ownership at a leadership level, with the senior team leading by example. Subsequently, it frequently falls low on the priority list for funding within organisations.

But with regulators imposing responsibilities on boards for culture, and individuals experiencing more strain than ever before, wellbeing must sit at the heart of organisational culture. Businesses must recognise its importance and also see it as a marathon, not a sprint: it’s important to help employees sustain performance over a long period. And it can yield huge benefits.

Research shows that organisations with high levels of employee wellbeing outperform the stock market by around 2-3 per cent a year over a 25-year period, while those that promote health and wellbeing are seen as 3.5 times more likely to be creative and innovative.

Benefiting employers and employees alike, making wellbeing a strategic business issue that’s both high on the agenda for the leadership team and an integral part of performance targets for leaders, managers and employees, is a no-brainer. Until then, the gimmicks and stunts will continue to have little impact, staff will continue to feel stressed and unhappy, and neither staff nor organisations will reach their true potential.

Chris Parke is co-founder and CEO of Talking Talent