Taken together, current circumstances can be a toxic brew: worldwide disruption, loss of revenue, job losses, displacement of youth from school, social media-fueled communication, and then high-impact social movements cresting amidst all this. Of course, the potential for a psychological toll is high. It’s been a lot to contend with, regardless of one’s personality.
This calendar year is unique in two major ways: one, disruption hasn’t been isolated to one region or one industry. Instead, the entire globe has seen significant economic and societal impacts. Two, this is a rare circumstance in which personal lives and workplaces have not only both been upended, the boundaries between the two have blurred. Safety protocols, for example, affect one’s workplace, but also one’s daily routines, consumer behaviors, and home life. And for those who are telecommuting indefinitely, office and home are now literally one and the same -- again, boundaries are now porous. That means it’s harder than usual to “escape” from the realities shaping lives this year.
Spreading reactions from friend to friend and coworker to coworker
Our thought processes and behavior are also affected. Individuals share news stories via social media, often with a motivation of communicating worry, fear, or a call to action. That dynamic can easily play out in workplaces as well, whether workers complete shifts together or remain in work-from-home mode for months. Information, particularly when filtered through a personal lens, has its own contagion, so to speak. That creates a chronic feedback loop of individuals sharing headlines captioned by their personal responses, which personalizes and therefore maximizes the worry. On the job, that can translate into worried chatter, heightened attention to safety protocols, and individuals scrutinizing the safety and hygiene habits of others. With our mindsets therefore shifted, the stage is set for burnout.
So what now?
An important consideration as the year hits its halfway mark: it’s time for a break.
Consulting group Korn Ferry reports survey data that
illuminates how employees are approaching that need. They cite recent findings that 28% of US office workers plan to take less time off this summer than they normally would, and more than a third (37%) said they are restricting their use of vacation days in the hope of having an opportunity to use them later in the year.
As Korn Ferry explains, Americans tend to have a hard time unplugging as it is. Even pre-pandemic, many executives struggled to disengage from business matters while out of the office. A substantial 71% of company leaders report a habit of checking in on the office during vacation one or more times a day, and two-thirds went so far as to alter travel plans in response to work matters.
Why are we skipping our PTO?
Several factors likely contribute to the drop in utilization of PTO days among workers mid-year. For many, concerns about health and safety remain top of mind. Measures of consumer opinion nationwide suggest a gradual move toward feeling comfortable engaging in various behaviors such as dining in a restaurant (from under 20% in late April to over 40% in early June) or attending a movie (from around 10% at the first survey to over 20% at the second). Still, ongoing self-restrictions of everyday behaviors among a sizable swath of the population will likely dampen interest in travel until the pandemic is perceived to have moved into a different stage. Indeed, this same survey noted continuing concern about “going on a vacation,” with over 6 in 10 adults not yet comfortable doing so by the first half of June 2020. The trend is moving toward higher comfort levels over time.
As Korn Ferry also discusses, the high unemployment figures around the nation may also be having an impact on workers’ willingness to step away from their roles for vacation days. Individuals who perceive their business sector to be on shaky ground, for example, or those who survived layoffs within their organizations, may perceive a need to redouble their efforts for the company’s sake and/or to protect their position. Financial vulnerability is a related factor. Individuals who fear the possibility of a layoff may be reluctant to use their vacation days, preferring instead to cash in unused hours should their position be eliminated.
Mental health on the brink
Although these concerns are considerable, a contrasting set of data is emerging that points to the real need for respite. The New York Times, for example, reported recently that when asked how Americans feel about the state of the US, agreement with the word “exhausted” was widespread, with 43% to 88% of respondents agreeing with this term. The percentage varied depending upon an individual’s political stance and age. Relatedly, the US Census Bureau noted that one out of three Americans confirms feeling symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both, figures higher than normally observed. The figures are startling for younger adults. In the week of June 18, 50% of respondents ages 18-29 reported indicators of depression or anxiety, along with 40.8% of those in their 30s.
As workers in diverse sectors plug along into the summer months, the potential for burnout grows. The concept of workplace burnout is not new. In fact, Forbes reported late last year that two out of three workers in 2019 had reported feeling burnout. The World Health Organization discusses the phenomenon, citing it as a factor that affects one’s health status. Specifically, the state is one of feeling depleted or exhausted in regards to work, a feeling of “mental distance” from one’s role, and “reduced professional efficacy” as a result.
Given this, efforts to improve the mental health of the workforce and to reduce the impact of burnout are worthwhile measures for business leaders. Employee engagement, including the extent to which employees feel satisfied with their employers, is at an all-time high. Aspects of this engagement include leadership support, communication, and fair compensation and benefits. The historically high weekly unemployment figures that have marked the past three months are likely playing some role, as employees are glad to have a job amid economic uncertainty. But it also suggests that employers have taken the upheavals of 2020 as a reset of sorts, increasing their mindfulness of employee needs and taking steps to cultivate potential, communicate openly, and promote the wellbeing of their staff.
Leadership: promote the importance of time off
Given this clear trend, it’s time to encourage employees to utilize their vacation time. Expert guidance can help individuals assess the risks of varying behaviors outside the home. This information, coupled with one’s personal risk tolerance, can then be used to select choices of activities away from work. For some, that might mean travel away from home.
For example, my family recently stayed in a cabin in Yosemite National Park, which opened in mid-June with limits on daily visitors. We enjoyed hiking to waterfalls, renting bicycles, and floating down the Merced River on our private small rafts. For us, being in nature and away from cell phone reception, coupled with three full days of active, fitness-promoting pursuits, was a welcome change of pace and setting. Other individuals may find that they prefer staying closer to home, or even remaining at home.
The point is to unplug from the workday, to focus body and mind on “stepping back,” and to change one’s daily routines. Regardless of how one chooses to spend their vacation time this year, one principle should remain: it’s vacation time, not part-time work. The need to address burnout is important, and keeping one eye on workplace messaging platforms and the email inbox is unlikely to ease those feelings of burnout. When work topics chronically remain in mind and the blur between work life and home/family life continues, those “vacation” days will be less effective in achieving the mental and practical rebooting necessary. While modeling this “away means away” behavior for themselves is a good step among leadership, it’s also important that this ethic is communicated to those on the job. The prevailing ethic this summer and beyond should be that messaging coworkers while away is taboo.
This year has been pivotal. Recognizing the challenges we’ve faced, as well as the reality of pandemic fatigue, risk mitigation fatigue, homeschooling fatigue, and even Zoom fatigue, is an important first step in building the resilience necessary to move forward. Taking time off of work, for individuals in all roles and of all personalities, can boost mental health while enhancing later productivity. So whether you plan to visit extended family for some safe backyard get-togethers, take a road trip to a new patch of coastline you haven’t yet explored, unplug at home while diving into a stack of novels, or float down a quiet river at dusk like I just enjoyed, the time away will do you good.
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