Elle Bell needed a break.
The stress and pressure at work grew to the point that a doctor recommended that Bell, a 26-year-old PR consultant from Leeds, UK, take a few weeks off from work. According to her employment contract, she was entitled to sick leave for 14 days, and she planned to use another two weeks of annual leave to take a medically recommended break. But when she approached her manager, she was asked to take only five days off as vacation. Because Bell was so overwhelmed with stress at work, she complied and didn’t take the full vacation she needed. The days leading up to the reduced time off made matters worse, as Bell was swamped with extra work to make sure everything was covered while she was away.
After all the chaos before she left, Bell said the week she left was not peaceful or healing. “I felt like I was in a pretty high state of alertness and anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating. I lost a lot of weight,” Bell told me.
Bell is not alone. For many people, preparing for vacation or time off can be the most stressful time at work. There are projects to complete, colleagues to speed up and clients to convince. Even when you’ve checked out, the specter of an overflowing inbox and a growing to-do list can make the time you have left less peaceful.
As worker burnout has become an increasingly common topic during the pandemic, the onus has shifted to employers to provide employees with better time off policies that promote a healthy work-life balance. And this shift doesn’t just mean more vacation time. Recently, a number of companies and state employers have considered introducing menstrual leave for workers – allowing employees to take up to eight hours a month in addition to vacation and sick leave.
While the idea behind this shift is laudable, in many cases seemingly favorable time off policies for workers don’t actually help make work easier for employees. If employees are constantly trying to make up time before and after vacation, sick leave, and even bereavement leave, the question arises: are these “leave of absence” policies really useful?
Give employees a break
The roots of our overworked and burned-out culture go back decades. As the workforce increasingly shifted from labor-intensive factory work to office work, the balance between home and work life steadily improved throughout the 20th century. But as Insider’s Aki Ito explained, something flipped in the 1980s when “hustle culture” — which prized the appearance of longer, harder work — took over the workplace. “The long workday suddenly became a symbol of ultimate status, a peculiarly American form of humble bragging,” Ito wrote.
Grace Lordan, Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the London School of Economics, also specified the cultural changes that took place in that decade – from the rise of Thatcherism to the glorification of Wall Street culture – as key moments of change.
And this creeping invasion of work into our personal time only got worse as technology improved. The Internet and increasingly ubiquitous devices increase the pressure on employees to continue working while at home or on the go. Presentism — the idea of attending work despite illness — became the norm.
The result is a workforce that feels burned out and can’t get away from their desks. And in 2018 study The American Psychological Association found that only 41% of employees said their company promotes taking time off, and 32% of employees said their workload made it difficult for them to take time off. Almost a fifth of the respondents said they avoided annual leave for fear of being seen as insufficiently dedicated to their work.
It comes down to workplace culture
Employers have become friendlier when it comes to time off in recent years, trying to lure workers with more generous policies, but in many cases these promises are just for show. Many companies do not adjust their expectations based on their new leave policies and simply expect workers to cram in the same amount of work. If you’re sick, struggling with period symptoms, or burned out and need to take time off, knowing you’ll have to make up those hours elsewhere can add to the stress. For those with children or other responsibilities that can’t work past their normal work 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 this tension about the four-day work week: “Many employers are unable to reduce workloads sharply, so employees will probably have to squeeze five days of work into four.” Like menstrual leave, four-day work week is a new policy that some companies are offering. However, companies that have implemented the policy still expect the same amount of work.
Studies to have shown that even when people take a break, the pile of work they return to quickly increases stress and disclaims any benefit from free time. According to a 2018 APA survey, nearly two-thirds of workers said the benefits of annual leave faded “within a few days.”
Giving workers a break—one that’s actually relaxing and prioritizes their well-being—requires adjusting their workloads. It makes no sense to offer employees 30 days of leave per year without adjusting their workload for 30 days of work. Pim de Morree, co-founder of Corporate Rebels, a consultancy researching how to make work more fun and fairer, told me that if people aren’t taking enough days off “then the problem isn’t your leave policy – it’s that there’s too much pressure.”
And these problems become even more acute when it comes to unexpected or sudden time off, 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 because company policy applied to immediate family members, Paraskeva was only given one day off. When it was time to return to work, Paraskeva could not enter. In an email she later sent to the company, she said she “woke up hysterical” and was unable to “be at work while I’m grieving so hard.” The manager told Paraskevi she could have another day off if she could find a replacement to cover her shift, but after she couldn’t find a colleague to take over, she was placed on disciplinary action.
“She said I was being disciplined for ‘no-show’ because I didn’t give her enough notice,” Paraskeva said, noting that she called her manager six hours before the shift. “She said I had no chance of losing my job.” eventually led Paraskeva to quit her job.
Without companies addressing their culture around taking time off, workers are often penalized for trying to manage their own well-being. In many cases, this results in employees simply hiding their problems.
“Your organization could create this wonderful, very flexible mental health leave policy, but if it’s not a place where you feel safe talking about the fact that you have mental health issues, those policies are kind of redundant,” she told me. Alison Unsted, chief executive of the UK’s City Mental Health Alliance.
Time off policies are part of the benefits package employers offer to attract the best employees. But the reality is that employees often feel unable to use their free time appropriately, are denied it, or find the hard way that work itself is too stressful to allow them to take time off from their desks. The hypocrisy of time off policies clearly shows that they seem to benefit the employer far more than the workers themselves.
Prioritizing work-life balance
Like Ella Bell, Abi Corbett began freelancing for mental health reasons. The 30-year-old production manager has had dissociative attacks – a manifestation of anxiety in which her brain shuts down and her body goes into seizure form – since her teenage years. After years of trying to balance her work and health, Corbett now works as a freelancer for a company that encouraged her to bill the time off she had to take because of the attack. Her manager made it clear to her that she would be treated as a paid employee. “She said, ‘You’re part of our team, so I’m going to treat you like everyone else.’ The company is known to be really great with this sort of thing. I feel really lucky because they’re a huge corporate company, a global company, so for them to treat their employees like that is extraordinary,” Corbett told me.
This kind of treatment should not be exceptional. Taking time off isn’t relaxation or evidence of an employee’s lack of work ethic—it’s a sign of a healthy work-life balance. By forcing people to pile into work before they leave and struggle when 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 from the UK.