Workplace mental health: should we give employees mental health breaks?

Nike stole headlines in early September thanks to its latest developments in workplace mental health. The sportswear brand offered its US head office employees a week off to “recover from the stress of the pandemic”. Staff were encouraged to:

  • Ignore all work responsibilities
  • Power down all devices
  • Spend time with family.

The leisurewear behemoth was not the first company to implement such a scheme. In June 2021, dating app Bumble closed its doors for 700 staff – citing a “collective burnout” post-pandemic.

While Bumble’s move may have helped more staff members than Nike’s, it does pose a question for firms here in the UK. Should we give our employees a mental health break?

Combating job stress

The key point to remember here is that, in both cases, staff were awarded paid holidays in response to the job stress caused by the pandemic. Doubtless, the situation has seen more firms focusing on staff wellness. LinkedIn, for example, gave staff a paid week off in April 2021. CitiGroup introduced ‘Zoom-free Fridays’ in March and Deloitte introduced a flexible working policy.

Indeed, time off has an excellent impact on staff wellness, and consequently, companies. Employees report higher productivity, creativity and sleep when taking time off work. Likewise, a study by the American Psychological Association found that holidays helped people to disassociate from stressful environments.

Prevention is better than the cure

Josie Broadstock, HR Consultant at Altum HR, said: “Many of these initiatives have had profound impacts on workers.But it’s important to remember that we need to address the cause, not the symptom.”

“Naturally, the pandemic was a period of unprecedented stress for many companies, and they may consider these holidays a reward. But it’s important to make sure they mitigate any stressful circumstances in future, rather than chasing good PR.”

How can we improve mental wellbeing in the workplace?

Rather than being reactive,Josie advises, we should have policies in place to maintain staff wellness long-term. Of course, the pandemic has catalysed new practices, including remote and more flexible working.

“The pandemic was a one-off, but its effects will be felt for a long time. It’s up to HR managers now to manage expectations and make sustainable changes that reflect today’s working patterns,” says Josie.

So, for example, a management team might consider:

  • Remote working agreements full or part-time à with provisions for cybersecurity, an open-door policy for employees to come back into the office, and pre-agreed working hours.
  • Boundaries for out of hours communications à staff might consider a ‘no Zoom Friday’ rule or ban emails and texts outside of standard working hours.
  • A ‘safe space’ for employees to share their concerns à regular staff one-to-ones to address any concerns around job security, job satisfaction, bullying or even home life issues.
  • Four-day working weeks or early leaving times on certain days of the week.

Is a mental health week necessary to combat job stress?

Josie agrees that the moves made at Nike and Bumble will doubtless have had good impacts, even commercially. From a commercial viewpoint, managers must also consider the Bradford Factor – it is better for multiple employees to have a set amount of time off than to have sporadic, unexplained absences.

“Before rolling out a week off for everybody, managers should consider the long-term impacts. For example, they might need to check if the office can function with all staff members absent for a week. They might instead consider staggering time off, such as by department.

“Equally, they should make sure the time off doesn’t backfire. In Nike’s case, it was only head office staff who had the time off. In smaller companies, should all employees be treated the same?

“Finally, they should make sure this isn’t a quick-fix solution that’s papering over cracks. If there are issues in workplace culture, working hours, staff conflict or anything else, then these need to be addressed.”

Making workplace mental health part of the culture

Provisions for staff mental health should be as important, if not more, than bottom lines. In the UK, 70 million workdays are lost each year due to staff mental health, equating to £2.4 billion.

Rather than paying lip service, managers should implement policies and be held accountable. These should be written up, ideally in a digital format to account for any changes, such as the unprecedented pandemic.

Workplace documentation, like employee handbooks, should have a clear record of what is available for workplace mental health, including:

  • Annual leave
  • Working hours
  • Conflict resolution.
  • Additional tools to support wellbeing, such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

Likewise, managers should continually review this, using employee engagement surveys and regular one-to-ones.

Focusing on employee health full-time will offer both health and financial benefits. “It’s not always easy for a company to calculate the financial impact of time off. That’s why it’s better to encourage healthy working practices throughout the year, and check in with staff.”

For more help engaging your staff or revising your policy documentation, contact Altum HR today.

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