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The New Vacay: Forced Time Off. Do You Feel Better Yet?

With corporate workers crispy-toast-BURNT, some companies are now requiring PTO for all employees at the same time. Can it really change workplace mental health?
Alena Shekhovtcova/Pexels

Typical PTO has a few toxic traits: 1) Many of us don’t take what we’ve got. 2) That’s particularly true if you have the unlimited variety. 3) When you do take PTO, are you ever really off? Texting and Slack are just too available—and tempting.

The results? First comes burnout. Then comes Indeed stalking. To combat this—with the express goal of improving employees’ mental health—an intriguing trend has popped up: Companies are now enforcing the same week off, company-wide.

Social media marketing company Hootsuite, for example, introduced the “Wellness Week” to, as Paul Dhillon, Hootsuite’s director of total rewards put it, “unplug together.” The timing couldn’t have been more crucial: According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 “Work and Well-being” survey, three in five employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, and a full 87 percent said that actions from their employer—such as flexible hours, encouraging employees to take PTO, and endorsing breaks during the work day—would help their mental health.

In the everyone’s-off game, LinkedIn was a super-early adopter, starting with a year-end shutdown in December 2013, says Nina McQueen, LinkedIn’s vice president of global talent, benefits, and experience. Dating app Bumble closes for a week twice a year. And at VaynerX, a creative and media agency, it’s policy to tack additional days off around holidays, says Claude Silver, the company’s chief heart officer. 

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While the U.S. hasn’t exactly morphed into Europe—where many companies cease operations for a month in the summer—this is certainly a step forward from the days when mental health was as taboo in the office as ripped jorts. But the changing landscape raises new questions: How much should you tell your employer about your mental health, and what accommodations are reasonable? We asked psychologists who specialize in work to explain what you gotta know about mental health on the job.

Time Off, Mental Health Up

If the CEO of your company were to send out an email scheduling an entire week off for all, no personal PTO depleted, you’d be Bella-Hadid-spray-on-dress-at-Coperni-level pumped, right? 
*runs to keyboard* 
*researches Tulum Airbnbs* 
*looks for a show with, like, 20 seasons*
*cues up Grey’s Anatomy*

PTO is directly linked to mental health, and that’s not a theoretical: In one study, for every additional 10 days off, depression in women was 29 percent lower. (This is major, people!) And forced days off, vs the you-choose type, may be especially beneficial for employees with unlimited PTO, who actually tend to take less time than those with a traditional vacay policy. 

No shocker, then, that mental health experts see this new type of PTO as a largely positive change. “It acknowledges that employees are humans, not machines,” says psychologist and leadership coach Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD. “Humanness shouldn’t be denied for the sake of productivity.” 

For what it’s worth, representatives at LinkedIn, Hootsuite, Bumble, and VaynerX all say their company-wide closings haven’t led to project delays or missed deadlines. “Team members are given advance notice of the collective holidays, giving both the employees and the company ample time to plan and manage project timelines and progress,” a Bumble spokesperson told Mental.

Same at Hootsuite. “We haven’t seen a negative impact on productivity to date,” Dhillon says. “Anecdotally, we have heard that it’s actually quite the opposite.” 

Science confirms the anecdotes. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that people are more creative two weeks after their vacation than they were before they took time off. And creativity is a clear benefit for an employer. “We do better work when we’ve had time to rest our brains,” says Dr. Jiménez, author of The Burnout Fix. “When we’re past our threshold, we make more mistakes.” 

Let’s Talk About Everyday Culture

Forced PTO is good for the company (more productivity!) and its employees (better mental health!). So… What’s the catch?

First, not everyone gets this opportunity. Take hourly employees or freelancers: In most cases, if they aren’t working, they aren’t making money. “Forced leave is a good idea only if it isn’t accompanied by loss of pay,” says David Blustein, Ph.D., a professor in the department of counseling, developmental, and educational psychology at Boston College and author of The Importance of Work In The Age of Uncertainty

Second, what’s more important than an extra week off are ongoing workplace measures that support mental health, says Dr. Jiménez. Like not making you feel weird for no-Zoom lunchtime. And not expecting you to reply to emails at 10 a.m. on Sundays. If you get “free” downtime once a year but put in bananas hours the other 51 weeks, your employer, Dr. Jiménez believes, isn’t actually prioritizing your well-being.

Dr. Blustein agrees. “The reality of the workplace in the U.S. is that we are a nation that works way too hard and too many hours,” he says. “The idea of mental health breaks is great, but people need to live a more balanced life overall.”

Hard YES there. Respondents in that American Psychological Association survey said that flexible hours and the ability to take breaks during the work day would make a big difference for their mental health. 

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Another crucial way for employers to show they care about mental health (and simultaneously retain good peeps)? Offer a sense of meaning. What’s the company’s bigger purpose beyond boosting performance marketing by 2.5 percent? And is it really leaning into your talents? In a recent Gallup poll, the majority of people said that the top factor they look for in a job is that it allows them to use their strengths. (Read that again.)

The Risks of Mental Health Talk at Work

For most of the year, workers aren’t on vacation—perhaps why emotional support at work is so important. But here’s where it gets tricky:

  • Which personal accommodations are reasonable to ask for?
  • How can you be sure that disclosing to your boss won’t hold you back? 

In a perfect world, say our experts, everyone could talk honestly with managers about having anxiety or bipolar disorder or going through bouts of depression. “Ideally, it’s best for people to be open about their mental health struggles, because there’s no reason anyone should feel shame or a sense of stigma,” Dr. Blustein says. But in our non-perfect world, mental health stigma is, unfortunately, much like COVID: It’s not gone yet.

What that means? If your boss or colleagues don’t respond sympathetically, it’s possible that disclosing could prevent you from getting ahead. Mental health bias—even when it’s implicit, not intentional, says Dr. Blustein—could lead to missed (even if deserved) promotions or a misbelief that you can’t handle important projects.

This sucks, because getting personal about mental health helps normalize it. And when your manager knows what you’re dealing with, it opens the door to changes that could actually boost your productivity. Say you have depression and mornings are rough; your manager might be open to afternoon meetings or slightly different work hours, says Dr. Jiménez.

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But before going to your manager, connect with human resources to find out exactly what the company offers, says California-based lawyer and mental health advocate Julian Sarafian (who caveats that the information shared here shouldn’t be considered personal legal advice). Ask questions like:

  • Do my benefits cover therapy
  • What’s the company stance on work-from-home flexibility? 
  • What’s the policy re: mental health leave? Some states, says Sarafian, have laws that allow workers to take mental health leave while still receiving their salary. 

When you do talk to your manager, keep the conversation solution-oriented. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, I have depression and it’s making my life miserable,’ keep it focused on what you want,” Sarafian says. Is it more days off? Fewer assignments? Once you put the ask out there, it’s up to your manager to communicate what they can realistically offer. Maybe they’re fine with mostly afternoon meetings, but you’ll need to attend the weekly all-hands on Friday mornings. Or instead of a reduced workload for six months, they can give you three.

From there, you’ll need to decide if the accommodations are enough to keep your mental health, well, healthy. 

When You’re The Manager…

…and an employee asks for accommodations, Dr. Blustein encourages you to listen. “The bulk of people in the workforce are honest and want a good job. We should assume the best about our [employees] and not view them as scheming or manipulative,” he says. “My experience of studying the labor market for decades is that people want to do the right thing.”

Of course, businesses are businesses and you’ve got to keep the lights on—which means you can’t always be as generous as you’d like. Explain the accommodations you can make, then turn it over to your employee. Maybe they’ll ask if they can go part-time instead. Maybe they’ll quit. That’s hard to take as a human, but remember you did what you could and, at the end of the day, you’re a manager at a company, not the manager of one person’s life.   

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