Elle Bell needed a break.
Stress and job pressure had built up to the point that a doctor recommended Bell, a 26-year-old PR consultant from Leeds, in the UK, take a few weeks off from work. Her employment contract entitled her to 14 days of sick leave, and she planned to use another two weeks of vacation to take the medically recommended break. But when she approached her manager, she was asked to take just five days off as vacation. Because Bell was so overwhelmed with stress from work, she complied and didn’t take the full leave she needed. The days leading up to the abbreviated time off made things worse, as Bell was swamped with extra work to make sure everything would be covered while she was away.
After all the pre-leave chaos, Bell said the week she took off didn’t feel restful or healing. “I felt like I was in quite a high state of alert and anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping, and I wasn’t eating. I did lose a lot of weight,” Bell told me.
Bell isn’t alone. For many people, the run-up to a vacation or time off can be the most stressful time at work. There are projects to finish, colleagues to get up to speed, and clients to reassure. And even when you’ve logged off, the specter of an overflowing inbox and a growing to-do list can make the time away less restful.
As worker burnout has become a more prevalent topic during the pandemic, the onus has shifted onto 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 string of companies and government employers have considered implementing menstrual leave for workers — allowing employees to take up to eight hours a month of menstrual leave on top of holiday and sick leave.
While the idea behind this shift is commendable, in many cases seemingly worker-friendly time-off policies don’t actually do much to help make work easier on employees. If employees are constantly trying to make up time before and after holiday, sick leave, and even bereavement leave, it begs the question: Are these “leave” policies really helpful at all?
Give employees a break
The roots of our overworked and burned-out culture stretch back decades. As the workforce increasingly shifted from labor-intensive factory work to office-based white-collar work, the balance between home and work life steadily improved over the 20th century. But as Insider’s Aki Ito explained, something flipped in the 1980s when “hustle culture” — valuing the appearance of working longer and harder — took over the workplace. “Working long hours was suddenly the ultimate status symbol, a peculiarly American form of humblebrag,” Ito wrote.
Grace Lordan, an associate professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, also pinpointed cultural changes that took hold in that decade — from the rise of Thatcherism to the glorifying of Wall Street culture — as key moments of change.
And this creeping invasion of work into our personal time has only worsened as technology improved. The internet and ever-present devices ramp up the pressure for employees to continue working while at home or on the move. Presenteeism — the idea of being present at work despite sickness — has become the norm.
The result is a workforce that feels burned out and unable to free themselves from their desks. A 2018 study by the American Psychological Association found that only 41% of employees said that their company promoted taking time off, and 32% of employees said that their workload made it difficult for them to take time off. Nearly a fifth of respondents said they avoided taking vacation time for fear of being seen as not committed enough to their jobs.
It comes down to workplace culture
Employers have put on a friendlier face when it comes to time off in recent years, trying to attract workers with more generous policies, but in many cases these promises are just for show. Many companies don’t 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 that you will have to make up those hours elsewhere can add more stress. For those with children or other responsibilities who can’t work past their normal office 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 in relation to the four-day workweek: “Many employers aren’t in a place to suddenly reduce workloads, so employees will probably have to cram five days’ worth of work into four.” Like menstrual leave, the four-day workweek is a new policy that some companies are offering. However, the companies that have implemented the policy are still expecting the same amount of work to get done.
Studies have shown that even when people do take a break, the pile of work that they return to quickly ramps up the stress and dashes any benefit from the time off. According to the 2018 APA survey, almost two-thirds of workers reported the benefits of vacation faded “within a few days.”
Giving workers a break — one that is actually restful and prioritizes their well-being — requires adjusting their workload. It doesn’t make sense to offer employees 30 days of leave a year without adjusting their workload by 30 days’ worth of work. Pim de Morree, the cofounder of Corporate Rebels, a consultancy firm that explores how to make work more fun and fair, told me that if people aren’t taking enough days off “then the problem is not 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 like 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 passed away. She asked for bereavement leave to attend the out-of-town funeral, but because the company’s policy applied to immediate family members, Paraskeva was only granted one day off. When it was time to return to work, Paraskeva found herself unable to go in. In an email she later sent to the company, she said she “woke up hysterical” and was in no state to “be at work while I was grieving so heavily.” Paraskeva was told by her manager that she could have the second day off if she could find a replacement to cover her shift, but after she was unable to find a coworker to take over, she was placed on disciplinary probation.
“She said I was being put on disciplinary for ‘not turning up’ because I hadn’t given her enough notice,” Paraskeva said, noting that she had called her manager six hours before her shift. “She said I had run out of chances to be off work.” The experience ultimately led Paraskeva to quit her job.
Without companies addressing their culture around taking time off, workers often get punished for trying to manage their well-being. In many cases, that results in employees simply hiding their problems.
“Your organization might create this wonderful, very flexible mental-health-leave policy, but if it’s not a place where you feel safe to either talk about the fact that you’re having mental-health struggles, those policies are kind of redundant,” Alison Unsted, the CEO of the UK’s City Mental Health Alliance, told me.
Time-off policies are part of benefits packages employers offer to entice the best employees. But the reality is that employees often feel unable to use their time off appropriately, are refused it, or find out the hard way that the work itself is too stressful to allow for restful time away from their desks. The hypocrisy of time-off policies makes it clear that they seem to benefit the employer much more than workers themselves.
Prioritizing work-life balance
Like Elle Bell, Abi Corbett started working freelance for mental-health reasons. The 30-year-old production manager has had dissociative seizures — a manifestation of anxiety where her brain shuts down and her body goes into a form of seizure — since her teens. After years of trying to balance her work and health, Corbett now works in a freelance capacity with a company that encouraged her to invoice for time off she had to take because of a seizure. Her manager was clear with her that she would be treated like a salaried employee. “She was like, ‘You’re part of our team, so therefore, I’m going to treat you the same as anyone else.’ The company is known to be really great with stuff like that. I feel really lucky because they’re a massive corporate company, a global company, so for them to treat their employees like that is exceptional,” Corbett told me.
This kind of treatment shouldn’t be exceptional. Taking time off isn’t slacking off or proof that an employee lacks work ethic — it’s a sign of a healthy work-life balance. By forcing people to pile on work before they leave and scramble once they return, companies are undercutting their supposedly generous time-off policies and making the workplace worse for everyone.
Molly Lipson is a freelance writer and an organizer from the UK.