August 24

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Unlimited PTO. Burnout. And Vacation Time: Prioritizing Wellness In An Always-On Work Culture

In an era where people are already questioning what it means to work, COVID-19 has dramatically shaken up the conversation. With more and more employees in a work-from-home situation, a source of burnout has been created, and the ways to relieve this don’t exactly come with an easy answer.

The line between home life and work life is thinner than ever. Employees used to be able to keep both aspects of work life separate, but now, it’s impossible to switch off from work mode, and even taking a week off only masks the symptoms of burnout without truly getting to the root cause. This inability to escape work creates a perfect storm that is forcing many businesses to reevaluate how they prioritize their workforce.

Remote working isn’t a benefit – it’s a way of life now

“In general, remote working has historically been a voluntary arrangement, typically viewed as an employee benefit, which offers more flexibility and opportunities for work-life balance. Conversely, some studies suggest that working from home tended to increase sources of perceived stress (i.e., work-family conflict),” reads this study

“These negative impacts seem to disproportionately impact women and those in part-time work, due principally to their decreased ability to compartmentalize the roles salient to work and home domains,” it continues. “Primarily derived from a role strain, role overload, and spillover orientation, the researchers hypothesized that the COVID-19 restrictions would create additional sources of perceived stress and work-related burnout since a wider range of professionals not regularly working from home were transitioned in involuntarily remote working.”

Why should we be addressing burnout at all?

Levels of burnout can affect the bottom lines of employees and what you can get out of them. Long hours through overtime, demanding bosses, and an unbalanced work-life mix have led to a country with high levels of burnout, stress and unhappiness.

A study found that 31 percent of Japanese workers reported being burnt out, which is 5 percent higher than the global average. Japan also has one of the lowest economic output rates compared to other developed countries. It is the lowest among G7 countries. Chaining workers to desks does not equal more productivity, but countries that boast healthier work-life balance perform better.

How much time off is enough to attract workers?

The company 1Password created a scheme where workers can take 25 flexible paid days off per year. This means workers can take those days off for pretty much any reason. Vacation? Sure. Sick day? Yes. They can use them how they want. This is coupled with four wellness days, putting together a generous package to attract and help their workers. It did so well in fact that between 2016 and 2019, 1Password saw an increase in the workforce from 108 to 640. 

However, it is unknown if their flexible time off scheme was the deciding factor. In addition, the company offers other tempting benefits like equity and a 7.5 percent cost-living salary hike. So perhaps a combination of the offerings contributed. 

The last thing you want to do is offer something and have to backtrack it because you’re finding that people are using vacation, and now you don’t have anyone available. So some employers are stuck because they have a staff shortage right now, and it’s not because there are no workers out there; it’s because employees are demanding that companies put their health over profits.

Nike Prioritizes Mental Health and Closes Its Offices

Nike back up their stance on prioritizing the wellness of their employees by closing their corporate offices so their employees could focus on mental health. News of this unprecedented move went viral quickly. Do employers have to do something like this to attract employees and make them happy? Not necessarily.

It is becoming a common practice now to offer unlimited vacation days, and it is easy to see why. So it stands to reason that unlimited vacation days would look very attractive to prospective workers. When an employee comes from their vacation, the stress tends to multiply, caused by work left undone and piled up. 

To add to the problem, a large portion of workers— in the case of this article, 40 percent of Americans— showed an unwillingness to take vacations. Peer pressure, a never-give-up warrior culture, and worrying about being called a slacker contributes to this unwillingness. Although unlimited vacation might be attractive to workers, ask yourself this: What good is it if no one will use it? Startups must marry work culture to such a benefit offering to effectively address mental and physical exhaustion.

One company has taken work culture completely out of the vacation equation altogether. Shahsank Nigam, CEO of aviation firm SimpliFlying, offers his workers mandatory vacation. Go relax. That’s an order. Yes, it is a paid vacation. However, the scheme was designed in such a way that if the worker was caught working while on vacation, they forfeited a portion of their salary. It seems like an aggressive stance, but happiness levels rose by 25%, and creativity was up 33%. Productivity saw a rise of 13 percent. It was a resounding success. If vacation was mandatory, then the stresses mentioned above need not apply.  There’s a lot that managers can do to encourage vacation time is being used. We are all human, and we need to take breaks. It helps us remain fresh, focused and more creative – and it will take organizations to think unconventionally in order to help their workforce disconnect without guilt on their vacations. 

About the author 

Chris Gory

Chris Gory is the founder of Orchard Benefits (formerly Insurance Portfolio Financial Services Inc.), a brokerage launched in 1999 that helps companies build the best benefits programs for their employees. Chris is passionate about helping entrepreneurs, and works with over 80 startup companies. He is an advisor at the Ryerson DMZ and he's led talks about employee benefits and insurance at several startup accelerators including Extreme Startups, OneEleven, and Ryerson's Startup School. Chris has also been featured in the Toronto Star and The Globe & Mail, and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Applied Client Network, an international association of independent insurance professionals, from 2012-2018.


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