December 9, 2022


Eli Bell needs a break.

The stress and workload got to the point that a doctor recommended Bell, a 26-year-old PR consultant from Leeds, UK, take a few weeks off work. His employment contract entitled him to 14 days of sick leave, and he planned to use another two weeks of leave to take a medically recommended break. But when he approached his manager, he was told to take only five days off as leave. Because Bell was so overwhelmed by the workload, he complied and didn’t take the full vacation he needed. The days leading up to the short vacation made things worse, as Bell was swamped with extra work to make sure everything was covered while he was away.

After all the chaos before the holidays, Bell said the week he left didn’t feel calm or healing. “I felt like I was very alert and anxious. I wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t eating. I had lost a lot of weight,” Bell told me.

Bell is not alone. For many people, going on vacation or taking a vacation can be the most stressful time at work. There are projects to finish, colleagues to get up to speed and clients to reassure. Even if you log off, the sight of an overflowing inbox and a growing to-do list can make the time less relaxing.

As worker burnout has become a more prevalent issue during the pandemic, the onus has shifted to employers to provide workers with better time-off policies that promote a healthy work-life balance. And this shift doesn’t just mean more vacation time. Recently, a string company and Government employers Considered implementing monthly leave for employees — allowing employees to take up to eight hours a month of monthly leave on top of vacation and sick leave.

While the idea behind this change is admirable, in many cases seemingly worker-friendly time-off policies don’t actually do much to help make workers’ jobs easier. If employees are constantly trying to make up time before and after vacation, sick leave, or even bereavement leave, it begs the question: Are these “vacation” policies helpful at all?

Give employees a break

The roots of our overworked and burned-out culture stretch back decades. As the workforce increasingly shifted from labor-intensive factory work to office-based white-collar work, the balance between home and work life continued to improve throughout the 20th century. But as Insider Aki Ito explains, something turned upside down in the 1980s when “hustle culture” — valuing the appearance of working long and hard — took over the workplace. “Working long hours was suddenly the ultimate status symbol, a peculiarly American form of humility,” Ito wrote.

Grace Lordan is also Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the London School of Economics pinpointed The cultural changes that decade took hold — from the rise of Thatcherism to the glorification of Wall Street culture — were key moments of change.

And as technology advances, this increasing invasion of work into our personal time has gotten worse. The Internet and ever-present devices increase the pressure on employees to continue working at home or on the go. representationalism – The concept of being present at work despite illness – has become the norm.

The result is a workforce that feels unable to free themselves from their desks. A 2018 Study The American Psychological Association found that only 41% of employees said their company promoted taking time off, and 32% of employees said their workload made it difficult for them to take time off. About a fifth of respondents said they avoided taking vacation time for fear of being seen as not committed enough to their jobs.

It comes down to workplace culture

Employers have put on a friendlier face when it comes to vacation time in recent years, trying to lure workers with more generous policies, but in many cases these promises are just for show. Many companies don’t adjust their expectations based on their new vacation policy and just expect workers to work the same amount. If you’re sick, struggling with period symptoms, or burned out and need to take time off, knowing that you have to make up those hours elsewhere can add even more stress. For those with children or other responsibilities that prevent them from working after their normal office hours, taking time off can be nearly impossible.

Abigail Marks, a professor at Newcastle University Business School who focuses on the future of work, explained The tension in the case of the four-day work week: “Many employers are not in a position to suddenly cut workloads, so employees will probably have to cut five days’ worth of work to four.” like menstrual leave, Four-day work week A new policy that some companies are offering. But companies that have implemented the policy still expect the same amount of work to be done.

Study there is to show That even when people take a break, the pile of work that quickly ramps up and stress them back No benefit dash According to a 2018 APA survey from the time off, nearly two-thirds of workers reported that vacation benefits faded “within a few days.”

Giving employees breaks – which are actually soothing and prioritize their well-being – is necessary to adjust their workload It doesn’t make sense to give employees 30 days off a year without adjusting their workload to the value of 30 days work. Pim de Mori, co-founder of Corporate Rebels, a consulting firm on how to make work more fun and fair, told me that if people don’t take enough days off, “the problem isn’t your vacation policy — it’s a lot of stress.”

And these issues become more acute when it comes to unexpected or sudden leave such as sick leave or bereavement leave. Nikki Paraskeva, a 26-year-old assistant general manager of a London pub, was working for a clothing retailer in 2018 when a close friend died. She requested bereavement leave to attend an out-of-town funeral, but since company policy applies to immediate family members, Paraskeva was only granted one day off. When it was time to return to work, Paraskeva found herself unable to go inside. In an email she later sent to the company, she said she “woke up groggy” and “wasn’t in the mood to work when I was grieving” heavily.” Paraskeva was told by her manager that if she could find a replacement to cover her shift, He could get a second day off, but he was placed on disciplinary probation when he couldn’t find a colleague to take over.

“He said I was disciplined for ‘not showing up’ because I didn’t give him enough notice,” Paraskeva said, adding that she called her manager six hours before her shift. “He said that my chances of getting off the job were over.” The experience eventually forced Paraskeva to quit her job.

When companies spend time not communicating their culture, workers are often punished for trying to manage their well-being. In many cases, this results in employees simply hiding their problems.

“Your organization can have these great, very flexible mental-health-exempt policies, but if it’s not a place where you feel safe talking about mental-health struggles, then those policies are kind of redundant,” UK’s Alison Unstead, CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance, told me.

Time-off policies are part of the benefits package that employers offer to lure the best employees. But the reality is that workers often feel unable to use their vacation time appropriately, either denied or finding out the hard way that work is too stressful to allow them time to relax away from their desks. The hypocrisy of time-off policies makes it clear that they seem to benefit the employer more than the workers themselves.

Prioritizing work-life balance

Like Eli Bell, Abi Corbett began freelance work due to mental-health reasons. The 30-year-old production manager has had dissociative seizures – a manifestation of anxiety in which his brain shuts down and his body goes into convulsions – since his teenage years. After years of trying to balance her work and health, Corbett now works in a freelance capacity with a company that encouraged her to invoice her for time off because of her seizures. Her manager was clear with her that she would be treated like a salaried employee. “He was like, ‘You’re part of our team, so I’m going to treat you like anybody else.’ The company is known to be really great with that kind of thing. I feel really lucky because they’re a huge corporate company, a global company, so to treat their employees like that is exceptional,” Corbett told me.

Such treatment should not be exceptional. Time off isn’t slacking or evidence that an employee lacks work ethic—it’s a sign of a healthy work-life balance. By forcing people to work before they leave and scrambling after they return, companies are undermining their supposedly generous time-off policies and making the workplace worse for everyone.


Molly Lipson is a freelance writer and organizer in the UK.



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