Why longer holidays could bring back the creative spark for burnt-out employees

The ‘Swedish summer’ of four consecutive weeks of annual leave is worth importing to the UK, argues Linnea Bywall

Linnea Bywall, head of people at Alva Labs

Sweden has one of the most generous consecutive annual leave policies of any country in the world. Annually, Swedes get 25 days of paid holiday. This includes up to four consecutive weeks off in summer – known as ‘Swedish summer’ – which is guaranteed by the Swedish Annual Leave Act. 

This lengthy holiday begs the question why do Swedes take so much time off? In part, it’s because of tradition. Sweden has long been a bastion of workers’ rights, with the first workers’ strike taking place there in 1850. But on top of this, Swedes have realised just how effective consecutive weeks of holiday are. 

We all know that feeling of returning to work after a break: you feel rested, restored and ready to go again. When you take time to stop, unwind and de-stress, you give yourself the chance to come back armed with new ideas and fuelled by renewed enthusiasm.

Boosting productivity

A recent study demonstrated that annual leave can improve employee productivity by up to 40 per cent and reduces the risk of sick leave by 28 per cent. Just as athletes perform better after an off-season break, employees who take holidays return to work more energised, engaged and creative, according to recent research. F1 drivers – who no one can accuse of taking their work lightly – take a six-week summer so they can reset and ‘come back stronger’. 

It’s easy to see why this works so well. Just as returning to a project after a good night’s sleep can cast it in a new light, returning to work after extended time off can offer new ways of thinking about old problems and the renewed energy to tackle them head on.

Viable for global economies?

It’s no secret that Sweden’s tech and start-up ecosystem is one of the most lauded in the world. Home to Spotify, Klarna and Northvolt, Sweden has 20 start-ups per 1,000 employees, compared to just five in the US. It also has the most tech unicorns outside of Silicon Valley, now totalling 35. These are real, tangible figures. And while they may not be solely attributable to the Swedish summer, the link is clearly there. It’s no coincidence that start-ups – projects that require free time, energy and creativity – flourish when people are trusted to take time for themselves, and (perhaps more importantly) are told to respect that time. 

Should the UK follow suit?

A study conducted by Glassdoor last year found that reports of burnout in the UK had almost doubled in 12 months. They had hit an all-time high. Another Glassdoor survey also carried out in 2022 found that only 60 per cent of workers had used their full holiday entitlement in the past year. What’s more, nearly 18 per cent of under 25s said they took zero annual leave over the previous 12 months.

The correlation of these figures isn’t a coincidence – it’s evidence of widespread unhealthy working practices. And for all the talk about employee burnout, it’s rare to see actionable steps being suggested or implemented.

By creating an environment in which workers feel like they can take the time off they need, a company shows that it values more than just productivity figures (though those are still valuable, of course). Being serious about paid holiday shows that a company values their employees holistically, as real people instead of numbers – and their employees will respond to that, both in and out of the office.

So much time is spent in interviews asking potential hires about what they do outside of work – their hobbies, their interests – yet once they’re hired, employers often act as if that side of their life doesn’t exist at all. But to do so does require a real cultural shift. Sixty per cent of British people check emails on holiday – no doubt from a fear that to not check their emails entirely would be a sign they are not taking their job seriously enough.

UK companies, if they want to reap the benefits of extended holidays in the way Sweden does, need to encourage employees to embrace their annual leave. There should be no shame about not checking emails for the duration of the holiday, or in switching off notifications on Slack and forgetting all about work for a while. After all, what good are white sandy beaches if you’re just mulling over PowerPoint slides?

In the same way that you’d rather choose a dynamic, interesting candidate for a position over one who barely puts in effort, you should pride yourself on letting your employees be the people they want to be. Trust them with extended holidays and they’ll repay that trust several times over. They’ll bring that infectious energy to the office – energising not just themselves, but the whole team.

Too often the parts of work that are glamourised are those that involve back-breaking work, staying late at the office and pulling all-nighters. It can seem almost too easy to talk about more time off and less time at the desk. But how often has that perfect idea come to you in the shower, or while doing laundry?

The evidence – and all Sweden’s unicorns – back this up: treat your employees like full, well-rounded people and they’ll be more likely to bring that creativity and excitement back to the office with them. Long holidays shouldn’t be cause for concern: if anything, seeing a three-week holiday booked in the calendar should be something exciting, for both the employee and their boss. 

Swedish summer is, and should be, here to stay. Now there’s only one question: how much are the flights?

Linnea Bywall is head of people at Alva Labs