The Necessity of Taking a Break from Work

We’re never really ‘off from work’ in the Digital Age. But it comes with a price – burnout is a workplace epidemic. How can we handle this?

This year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognises burnout as a medical condition. Just how can companies handle this impending workplace epidemic that hampers productivity?

WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Feeling burnout is in no way the same as feeling stressed. Burnout is a by-product of prolonged, unmanaged stress.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the workplace. It’s associated with feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

In a survey by Deloitte, 77 per cent of respondents said they have experienced employee burnout at their current job, with more than half citing more than one occurrence.

The findings by Deloitte are troubling as when not properly managed, burn out can spiral out into long-term stress-related conditions like fatigue, insomnia, increased sadness/anger/irritability and high blood pressure. Related consequences from burn out include alcohol or substance misuse/abuse, cardiovascular (heart) disease, gastrointestinal issues, Type 2 Diabetes etc.

Aside from personal health effects, burn out costs companies

All that sounds really intense doesn’t it? Is there a solution to burnout then?

How do we manage burnout when we’re never really off work?

For some ahead of their time, work-life balance is a passé.

Work-life integration – this is our lives presently as our mobile device, the smartphone replaces our desktop and laptops as the device we work on. This is why we are more inclined than before to work on the move as long as we have an internet connection.

We’re never really ‘off from work’.

According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Travel Association and market-research firm GfK of more than 4,000 full-time American workers with paid time off, it was uncovered that more than half don’t use all their vacation time. In fact, the average employee only takes 17.2 vacation days annually, down from the long term average of 20.3 days (from 1978 through 2000).

Yet there are companies who offer ‘unlimited vacation’ or ‘unlimited Paid Time Off (PTO)’ as an employment perk.

Sounds too good to be true? Do people with unlimited PTO utilise this benefit?

Using an example by Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School called ‘choice overload’, Lotte Bailyn (emeritus professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management) when interviewed by Quartz explains Iyengar’s research showing that when employees are faced with too many mutual fund choices it overwhelms them to the point of paralysis. These employees become risk-averse or decision locked, which leads them to either make a low yielding investment choice or, worse, no decision at all.

Bailyn concludes with using Iyengar’s example, that when vacation time becomes an unlimited resource many people may decide not to take advantage because it’s challenging to figure out the right amount to take.

Then again, there are also those who abuse the unlimited vacation policy.

Maybe the solution is not in giving more leave but making sure staff take their leave and truly disconnect.

Leave your work at work

The digital age accelerates innovation and transforms the world but there is a price to pay for all these benefits.

There’s an expectation of being constantly responsive or ‘always on’ because of the persistence of the internet – even on Everest.

Management, leaders, we should lead the change if we want employees to take their time off seriously, keeping burn out at bay.

Here are some ways you can start to disconnect from work fully:
  • Delegate work: There is a resource already available for you if you aren’t an individual contributor – your colleagues. People are bound to take time off work one day, so learn to let go. Work is a team effort. When it’s your time to cover them, return the favour.
  • Journaling: The idea of turning to the good ole pen and paper may seem a bit naïve but it is actually one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. Not only will it help in managing stress, but journaling also helps to aid in cognitive functioning, it helps you to organise your thoughts better.

There are many other ways to reduce stress and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

However, the ‘always on’ mentality and expectation needs to change if we want employees to take their time off seriously, keeping burn out at bay.

Like what Eric Garton, co-author of Time, Talent, Energy says, ” Unchecked organizational norms insidiously create the conditions for burnout—but leaders can change them to make burnout less likely. Giving people back the time to do work that drives the company’s success will pay huge dividends by raising productivity, increasing productive output and reducing burnout. Everybody wins.”


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