Is Unlimited Time Off the right option to stop employee burnout?
We’ve seen certain organisations take some drastic steps with extra holiday and leave to help their employees avoid burning out over the last 12 to 18 months — but has this actually worked?
One of the main reasons people come to me for career coaching is in fact to gain more life-work balance (yes, it is that way around — your life comes first along with your health and happiness!)
Even when their career is their life, they are craving more leisure time and, crucially the ability to switch off. Therefore, it’s no wonder that companies are trying to facilitate this to retain their workforce and keep them producing consistent and stand out work.
As we are seeing, it is an employee’s market out there when it comes to job hunting and employers are doing all they can to keep their teams happy, productive, and emotionally healthy — but is unlimited holiday the way to do this?
Quite obviously there are many factors at play for each business and unlimited leave should only be a small part of their overall wellbeing programme. In my experience, when advising organisations on how to improve their wellbeing offering it all starts with the company’s culture and attitude to working hours and taking time off.
There is absolutely no point in offering extra or unlimited leave if your employees feel they are unable to take it or have too much work to cope with that they cannot take it, as the workload they would return to would be more stress inducing than if they had stayed and worked those weeks off.
I’m not alone in experiencing this in previous roles — the dread of coming back to work and facing 1000’s of emails, issues that were purposefully left until I had returned because ‘that’s what Kate does so well’ which have now become big problems.
I ended up working longer hours to get on top of everything and within a few weeks was feeling just as depleted as before I had taken some leave making the whole situation redundant.
Now we are seeing more and more organisations offering more leave options from Finncapp offering unlimited leave and insisting that employees will have to take a minimum of four weeks of leave plus two or three days every quarter to Bumble, LinkedIn and Nike closing their HQ offices for a week for every staff member to have it off but is this benefitting the people employed?
In some cases — CharlieHR is a great example of this — when unlimited leave has been offered, staff have not taken it or anything close to it, hence Finncapp’s insistence that employees take minimum amount of leave as staff have full ownership of those four weeks rather than just unlimited choice of the amount of leave. When you have something, you will generally take responsibility for it and use it accordingly — the same applies to leave — use or lose it is easier to measure with a numerical benchmark.
As Ben Gately, (CEO & Co-Founder of Charlie HR) eloquently put it
“Numerical limits on holiday allowance don’t just define how many days you have to take that year — they also help define what is acceptable behaviour”
By providing unlimited holiday (note — this was unlimited paid holiday not merely unlimited leave which could have been unpaid) it was causing employees more anxiety in understanding what the holiday etiquette was. A massive backfire of a well-intentioned benefit.
The other aspect in this is that offering unlimited holiday affords a huge amount of trust to employees to not abuse it, however, it puts those who are approving holiday in a tricky position as they may feel they cannot deny a request or if they do then the reason could indicate a lack of trust in that individual making that request. Suddenly the trust and honesty culture will evaporate very quickly.
What will work then?
Firstly, if you are thinking of giving unlimited holiday a go then it is essential that your culture aligns with this in that there is no guilt around taking time off, that work is well covered, so people are not returning with anxiety and stress and that full handovers are given.
Secondly, your entire team need to be aware of how this works and the reasons why as well as the trust you are putting in them in how to use this unlimited leave.
You will want to measure it too and instruct holiday approvers of how to deal with those taking a lot and those not taking enough.
What about some alternative options?
An old colleague of mine used to take days off now and then for her mental health — she could see when a project was going to be draining her resources so she would book a mental health day, however, this came out of her holiday allowance. Why not offer 12 recovery/mental health days per year to staff — one per month for them to focus on their self-care, reset and rest.
Flexible working and parental leave or leave to care for dependents should all be considered as well so that staff know exactly what to take and when.
The week off over the Christmas period is a popular option for a full company shut down and adding in holiday perks such as employee’s having their birthday’s off can add to your offering.
You may want to consider putting some minimum allowances in to ensure employees are taking adequate time off by actively encouraging them to take time off each quarter. The most popular amount of holiday per year is between 33 to 35 days so setting a minimum of 25 days will help guide your employees in what to take.
The main change I believe organisations can make is addressing their existing working practices and wellbeing offering. When it comes to working practices that may mean a huge cultural mindset shift especially with some team members, however, it needs to be led from the top and not just said but actually done by all leaders and managers.
If you create a new holiday policy or different types of leave, then you need to give it a fair trial — at least 2 years to see what the take up is and the effects it has on your business.
Offering a strong employee assistance programme, mental health awareness training (especially to managers) should be standard along with training or talks/workshops on how to manage the main issues employees are dealing with such as stress, lack of resilience, poor nutrition, financial concerns, lack of sleep.
Actively encourage employees to switch off at the end of the working day — shutting down email / instant messenger can help with this as does a wellbeing pledge which your employees and clients sign to signify that they will respect working hours etc.
Of course, I will suggest offering wellbeing coaching or counselling to your team members — for some organisations this is a high cost so you may wish to consider having someone (like me!) come in each month/quarter to give talks to your team or have a Coach Kate session of an hour each to work through any issues they are experiencing.
This is not just about taking time off to recover — this is about ensuring your people are emotionally and mentally strong, happy and healthy at and whilst working.