Should employers consider giving workers a week off so they can take a break for mental health?

Nike has shut down its global headquarters for a week and thousands of office workers have been given time off in an effort to mitigate burnout from the pandemic.

The American sportswear giant’s head office employees were encouraged to unwind, de-stress and spend time with loved ones for the last week of August.

At the same time, it has been announced that Scotland is to trial a four-day week, without loss of pay similar to initiatives in Iceland and New Zealand.

The need to help employees achieve greater work life balance is a recurring theme with businesses over the last few months. Some companies are literally doing a whole week off and others are announcing nobody’s working on Monday or nobody’s working on Friday, and they’ll suddenly give staff a couple of weeks’ notice to enable them to have some downtime. Employers are suddenly waking up to the fact that staff wellbeing has a huge impact on company performance.

Why does staff wellbeing have such a big impact on business success?

Is it because they are happy? A happier colleague, a happy worker is someone who’ll produce more for the employer or is it because businesses are fearful of what happens if an employee becomes ill and mental health is cited and they go off sick?

It’s a complete combination. So mental health is something which people are much more able and free to talk about these days in a way that never was the case even five years ago. Traditionally, very few people came out and said, I’ve got a mental health issue, I’m feeling depressed, I’m feeling anxious, or I’ve got low mood. It’s very much the British tough upper lip and just carry on; it’s the same for everybody, you go in and put in a decent day’s work and take home your pay at the end of the day. That has changed and is continuing to evolve. Some people will blame the snowflake generation. Some people will say, we’ve just learned that we can be more open about our feelings and follow our emotions a lot more. The workplace is slowly, slowly catching up with that.

It’s slightly easier in the larger organisations because they tend to have more flexibility in their work force, they tend to have teams dedicated to employee welfare and they tend to be able to cope better with people being off.

It’s much harder for smaller businesses because having 1 person off could be 10% or 25%  of the workforce. However, even smaller businesses are beginning to ask “what can we do to support our staff?” Where business allows, they are moving to more flexible working hours. So rather than being Monday to Friday nine to five, businesses may introduce core hours i.e. 10 – 4 and as long as you are working these hours, you can start and finish when you want. Or they introduce a 3 day weekend and Friday becomes a non-working day for the whole business.

This sort of initiative has to come top down and business leaders must lead by example. If it’s something which some people can choose to do, they will look at others around them and if everyone else is working, there will be a pressure to work. Where a business actually say, the office is closed on this day or for this week, then there isn’t that same peer pressure.

When someone goes on holiday, they come back and there’s 250 emails waiting for them, that creates pressure and stress. If nobody’s working, that doesn’t happen, and it actually gives people a real complete break. And that’s what companies are beginning to do, both with the three-day weekend and with the ad hoc week off for wellbeing.

Does a week off really make a difference?

In Nike’s case they’ve given head office staff a week off. The announcement came from the Head of Insights, Matt Morrazzo. But what about the people who make the shoes and the sweatshirts and the people who deliver them and the retail staff who sell them, why don’t they get some time off?

I’m a little bit cynical here. The first thing to note is that this announcement has been made by the marketing department, and you’ve got question 1) why is it even being announced 2) why is an employee wellbeing initiative not coming from HR? 3)why is the whole business not benefitting from this initiative?

The only thing I can think of about those people outside of head office is that a lot of the head office staff were asked to work from home during the pandemic, whereas manufacturing, and retail staff couldn’t work from home. There is an argument that says actually these people had quite a lot of time off. On the other hand, you could take the position that an initiative like this has to start somewhere, and it’s got to be tested, so this is the population they’ve decided to test it with. Is it something that they are rolling out on an ongoing basis? Is this just a one-off?

With the organisations that move to a three-day weekend, there is a permanent contractual change. Giving people a week off for wellbeing, could just be a one-off and therefore what else are they doing? Giving somebody a week off isn’t necessarily going to fix a mental health issue or be a permanent solution for fixing work pressures and burn-out. What other initiatives are they putting in place? What other support are organisations such as Nike putting in? How are people being encouraged to use their time?

Giving all staff a week off is absolutely a start, but it’s the beginning of the journey, not the end.

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