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HR leaders: Give workers ‘permission’ to disconnect

Leigh Ann Errico
Leigh Ann Errico is a Georgetown University-certified leadership coach, Corentus-certified team coach and the founder of LA Errico & Partners.

“Summer vacation” has long been a yearly staple, but for many, the season is coming to end without a vacation in the books nor in sight. Rather than chalking this up to another casualty of the pandemic, HR leaders can proactively promote wellness. All that’s needed is a little creativity.

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Many Silicon Valley companies, such as Chegg, offer employees unlimited vacation. But because nobody was taking it, the company, which sells textbooks and provides students with homework help online, gave employees Fridays off this summer. Chegg also handed employees a week off in July and is considering doing so again this fall.

Andre Durand, CEO of Denver-based Ping Identity, has started inventing artificial holidays because he was concerned that some workers may have yet to develop clear work-life boundaries.

Author Leigh Ann Errico

Another solution? One company with which I work created a two-week “rejuvenation period.” Employees were asked to avoid scheduling any meetings and either take the time off or use it to get caught up in their jobs.

Building time off into the calendar can give employees the nudge they need to recharge, even when they don’t want to use the PTO they’ve earned without being able to do the types of trips to which they’re accustomed. HR leaders have the power to give employees the “permission” they need to disconnect—and they should use it.

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Going and going and going can backfire. Burnout is the destination, characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Nearly half of U.S. employees (45%) say they are burnt out, with one in four feeling this way because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an April 2020 survey by Eagle Hill Consulting. The top causes of burnout include workload (45 percent), trying to juggle professional and personal life (35 percent), a lack of communication (32 percent) and time pressures (30 percent). More than one-third (36%) of employees say their organization is not taking action to combat employee burnout. But yours can.

In addition to fears that PTO will be consumed by an underwhelming vacation, many employees worry that if they take a break, their managers will perceive that they’re uncommitted to their jobs and they’ll become an unemployment statistic. “Restful abstinence” is often a product of herd mentality that must be intentionally combatted.

HR leaders should launch a communications campaign that makes it clear to employees that taking time off is a responsible, respected decision. What can be done?

  • Make Wednesdays all about wellness, for example.
  • Send employees fun facts that illustrate the benefits associated with various self-care practices.
  • Create a workout selfie contest that’s rewarded with an extra day off.
  • Compile and distribute a list of creative, socially-distanced vacation ideas.
  • The message employees should hear is, “Take a break to take care of yourself! Your managers and colleagues will thank you.”

Not only are healthy employees more productive, they save their employers money in healthcare costs. According to a Gallup State of the American Workplace study, employees with high overall “well-being” have 41% lower health-related costs than employees who are struggling and 62% lower costs compared with employees who are suffering. Another study by Willis, Towers, Perrin confirmed a “year-over-year negative medical cost trend” in conjunction with a “year-over-year improvement of measured well-being.”

Vacations are a boon to health. Most notably, they reduce stress, which negatively impacts blood pressure, cholesterol levels and inflammation. In a longitudinal study, participants had a higher mortality rate if they skimped on vacation, even if they exercised, improved their diets, reached a healthy weight and stopped smoking! And reinforcing the notion that vacations improve employee performance, a 2018 study found that 52% of “mega-travelers”–Americans taking all or most of their vacation days to travel–received a recent promotion compared to Americans who use little to none (44%) of their time to travel. Mega-travelers also were more likely to earn a recent raise, bonus or both than those staying at home (86% to 81%).

Nearly half of workers have been putting off their time off. Steven Harrison, author of Doing Nothing, said, “We have collectively built an amazing world of technological wonder, of scientific marvels, and unparalleled productivity. But in this best of all possible worlds, we have learned so much about how to DO that we have forgotten how to BE.”

Summertime may be coming to a close, but it’s not too late for a vacation. For many, the need has never been greater; crises heighten the importance of self-care, from relaxation to sleep, diet, exercise, stretching, supplements and meditation.

So, HR leaders, encourage employees to pack their bags or pack away their laptop for a staycation. Creativity, motivation and focus will be brought back as souvenirs, elevating team engagement, capacity and performance.

Read more: What to do when workers won’t take their vacation