Protocol | Workplace

The hottest new perk in tech: A week off for burnout recovery

In an industry where long hours are a "badge of honor," a week of rest may be the best way to retain talent.

The hottest new perk in tech: A week off for burnout recovery

Tech companies are giving their employees a week to rest and recover from burnout.

Photo: Kinga Cichewicz/Unsplash

In early May, the founder of Lessonly, a company that makes training software, sent out a companywide email issuing a mandate to all employees. But it wasn't the sort of mandate employees around the world have been receiving related to vaccines and masks. This mandate required that every worker take an entire week off in July.

The announcement took Lessonly's staff by surprise. "We had employees reach out and share that they were emotional, just thankful that they had the opportunity to do this," said Megan Jarvis, who leads the company's talent team and worked on planning the week off.

Lessonly is not alone. Earlier this year, HubSpot introduced what it's calling an annual global week of rest. Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced global reset days that take effect later this year. And Bumble also instructed its employees to take a collective week off. "The past year has been an important moment for us to reflect on the ways we work and how we can best support our teams around the world," Bumble president Tariq Shaukat said in a statement. "It's becoming increasingly clear that the way that we work, and need to work, has changed."

For all of these companies, the goal is to fend off burnout, an increasingly widespread issue that's only been exacerbated by the pandemic. In May 2019, the World Health Organization officially added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases, citing it as an occupational phenomena. Then came COVID-19, and the mixture of long hours and high expectations began intermingling with new stresses, including caregiver strain, the movement for racial justice and the challenges of remote working. Now, tech companies are thinking up new ways to keep employees engaged.

"In the tech industry, like some other industries, there is this sort of badge of honor when it comes to the number of hours that you put in, and when it comes to people considering that a sign of how seriously you take the work," said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. "In some cases, shutting down organizations is a good thing to do."

The 'Great Resignation'

For Lessonly, the inspiration for the week off came after the company required that all of their employees take days off during the winter holiday. When they returned, Jarvis said employees expressed that they appreciated the time with family and the ability to rest and recharge. "We saw the benefit of the winter break; we said, 'Let's do that midyear as well,'" recalled Jarvis.

The summer break offered Lessonly employees another opportunity to "let some of that pressure go that I think they've been carrying," Jarvis said.

It might have come just in time. Widely referred to as the "Great Resignation," roughly 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's not entirely due to burnout, of course, but it certainly doesn't help with retention. According to a research study by Gallup, employees who experience burnout are almost three times as likely to seek a different job. And when a burned-out employee quits their job, it's costly. Gallup estimates that replacing one worker requires one-half to two times the employee's salary. Workers who are disengaged are similarly expensive; according to Gallup, they can cost companies up to 18% of a worker's salary in lost productivity.

The question remains: Is taking a week of rest actually effective in addressing burnout?

According to Doug Mennin, a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University, this approach is more of a short-term solution, but he said, "If you're not sleeping, and you're working a lot, and you're strung out from it, being able to recharge can be helpful."

Gruttadaro from the APA Foundation acknowledged that not every business has the luxury of taking a week off, but said, "If you can take one week off as a business, and then get the value of that in loyalty and employee productivity and performance, it seems well worth the investment."

A key challenge for businesses looking to implement a week of rest can be balancing that time off with customer demands and productivity goals. For Lessonly, that took planning. "If we want to take a break, that has an impact on our customers," Jarvis said. "So we had to take a step back and go: How do we do this and not put our customers in a difficult position?"

The key for Lessonly was giving managers and departments enough time to figure out how they could handle their products and customers during the time off. "We didn't decide this two weeks before we wanted to do it. We decided it in enough time to let managers and departments figure out how they could handle any support needs," Jarvis said.

The company sets quarterly objectives, so taking a week off in the middle of a quarter can impact an entire project. Teams had to make sure they could adjust their projects to still deliver by the end of the quarter, and Lessonly did keep some employees on call during the week off, providing them with additional time off later.

While some companies, including HubSpot, have committed to make a week of rest an annual event, Lessonly is still debating whether it can replicate this in the future and plans to study whether giving employees this time off was effective.

A new normal

Assessing these programs is critical, Gruttadaro said. Before jumping in with a solution to burnout, organizations should have a clear view of what employees actually want and need. They should first conduct assessments to understand why their employees are experiencing burnout in the first place, and let those employees help design what Gruttadaro called "a new normal" at work. "It's really important that organizations allow employees to feel like they're part of defining what that new normal looks like," she said.

In a blog post announcing HubSpot's annual week of rest, the company's culture communications manager, Sophie Hamersley, said the plan was based, in part, on a company survey. "In a recent survey, one HubSpot employee put it best: 'Unlimited vacation is great, but not spending your whole day back from vacation going through Slack messages and emails is even better,'" Hamersley wrote.

To help measure the efficacy of these programs, some companies turn to tools like the ones offered by Limeade, a corporate wellness technology company that sells an employee experience platform. Limeade's platform can track and measure engagement, stress and well-being, and the company has developed machine-learning algorithms that predict burnout as well. "If you have turnover data as well, you can say, historically, these are the type of people who burn out and quit," said Henry Albrecht, CEO and founder of Limeade.

For companies that can't manage to offer a week of rest, Gruttadaro said there are other strategies she has seen work, such as forming employee resource groups focused on mental health or other issues like race, gender and sexual orientation. She also emphasized the importance of support programs such as tele-mental health.

Jarvis, for one, recommends that companies that can offer employees a break at least give it a try and realize that they can always change course based on their employees' feedback. For Lessonly, the decision to focus on employee well-being went a long way. "I had a team member share that she hasn't had a summer break since college," said Jarvis. "When you got that summer break, and you could really step away — that freedom — that's what she related it to."

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