This week, staff at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon breathed a prolonged sigh of relief, after learning that they were getting a week off to de-stress and recover from the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In an open message to staff posted on LinkedIn, Nike’s senior manager of global marketing science, Matt Marrazzo, told staff: “In a year (or two) unlike any other, taking time for rest and recovery is key to performing well and staying sane.”
It’s a perk many still reeling from the trauma of 2020 can only dream of, but, according to management experts and sociologists, companies are becoming increasingly aware that pandemic-related burnout is a ticking timebomb.
LinkedIn gave its workers a paid week off in April; dating app Bumble did the same in June. CitiGroup said in March it would have “Zoom-free Fridays” while PricewaterhouseCooper and Deloitte said staff could decide when, where and how they worked. Staff appreciation is clear: this week an employee at Shopify, which gave staff Fridays off over the summer to recuperate, created a music video saying thanks for giving him “Friday my way”. Others are looking at a four-day week – the Scottish government has already committed to a pilot.
How big a problem is burnout? Really big, says Dane Krambergar, head of client services for workplace wellbeing at Mind. A survey of 40,000 staff across 114 organisations by the mental health charity found the wellbeing of 41% of employees had got worse during the pandemic, while about half of respondents said their work life had interfered with their home life. “There are quite stark statistics that suggest that burnout is a very real risk for many employees in the UK.”
According to the psychotherapist Hilda Burke, the symptoms of burnout include extreme exhaustion, insomnia, crippling self-doubt and extreme despondency – often caused by overwork, and being stressed over an extended period.
That is the situation many workers have faced in the past 18 months, says Ann Francke, the CMI chief executive. “This has been a marathon pandemic,” she says. “We’ve all been stretched to the limit and had to adapt constantly – that takes a lot of mental energy.”
According to research from the Chartered Institute of Management 44% of managers said their mental health had taken a hit, while 56% thought staff had suffered.
Not an entirely selfish act
Helping employees recover from the trauma of the pandemic is not just the right thing to do, it makes a lot of business sense, says Dr Heejung Chung, an expert in new ways of working and reader in sociology at the University of Kent.
“Having very stressed-out workers isn’t conducive for that worker’s productivity and output. It also impacts the whole team as the majority of workers work collaboratively,” she says.
In January, research by Deloitte found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year, and found that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions they got £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover. According to the Health and Safety Executive, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related sickness and 55% of all sick days in 2019-20.
Giving staff breaks, recognising they have gone above and beyond the call of duty and thanking them in a way that is more valuable than money is a good way of boosting loyalty, says Prof Cary Cooper, president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
“Every company now needs and wants to retain millennials,” he says. “They have a lot of talent, but they are also looking for good quality working lives. They are called snowflakes, but they’re not – they are just not going to tolerate the working practices of their parents.”
Will it work? What else can employers do?
Taking a break from a stressful environment can produce immediate results, but employers should look at addressing mental health problems before they turn into crises, says Krambergar. “We need more preventive action, rather than focusing on giving time off as the only solution.”
Offering flexible working, giving workers control over their schedule and trusting them, will improve wellbeing, says Francke – as well as simple things, like saying thank you.
“Little gestures of appreciation and recognition are worth their weight in gold,” she says. “They motivate people, they are free – and they can be done immediately by anybody.”
The hard cold reality is that most companies are not giving overworked staff time off, but Francke says more companies will be looking to increase their wellbeing offering.
“I’ve spoken to many leaders and they all see the wisdom of protecting staff mental health,” she says. “I think the pandemic has shocked us into realising the value of our mental health – this could actually be a silver lining.”