How to avoid burn-out: Think breaks, not holidays

by Quan on July 11, 2021

 

You’ll be all-too familiar with this Gallup stat: 23% of employees feel burnt-out at work very often or always, and another 44% feel burnt-out sometimes. It’s one of many, testifying to a worldwide burn-out pandemic that’s gathering momentum daily.

But despite all the awareness; all the reports and statistics; all the flagship well-being hires and ambitious programs… progress is slow. 

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Too often, well-being leaders are mandated to drive improvement while being undercut by insufficient investment, corporate disinterest, and poor cultural accountability. You’re left playing burn-out whack-a-mole – and you’re expected to do it without rattling any cages. 

The over-reliance on holidays as a curative measure is a classic symptom. Let’s talk about that – and explore why organizations need to build breaks into the flow of work instead, to truly avoid burnout. Prevention, not cure. 

The problem with holidays as a burn-out curative

Dating app company Bumble recently got mixed reviews for boasting on social media that they’d closed their offices for a week to fix “collective burnout”. It was, as one commenter pointed out, a nice gesture, but. Generous, but. 

Perhaps a little… performative? 

You saw the same thing when the idea of unlimited holiday was gaining traction, several years ago. (Reed saw a 20% increase in jobs offering unlimited paid leave between 2017 and 2018, for example). 

Unlimited holiday might seem like a great idea in principle but arguably, it’s little more than a fishing rod for jobseekers. As a policy, it sounds impressive – but without the cultural foundation to underpin it, it’s a straw house. 

Giving holiday and people taking holiday are two different things. Taking holiday and switching off from work, two different things. Switching off from work and teams being adequately supported to cover the extra workload, two different things.

CharlieHR’s founder Ben Gately talks about the ultimate failure of their unlimited holiday policy, for four reasons:

  1. Lots of people weren’t taking enough holiday 
  2. The people left in-office were picking up too much slack
  3. People were anxious not having boundaries defined
  4. Managers didn’t know how to navigate denying holiday requests

Look – there’s obviously an authentic desire here to “reimagine work for the better”, as Ben puts it, and we’re not looking to lambast the intention. That’s further than many businesses get. 

But the failure in execution proves the limitations of seeing holidays as a solution to what’s inherently a cultural issue. 

In his post, Ben conflates the ideas of high-performance with not taking holiday: 

“High-performers will perform highly. Put simply – a lot of people weren’t taking enough holiday. […] The people we hire at Charlie are hard workers who are passionately engaged with their work and careers. In that context, I’m not surprised some people weren’t being conscious enough about their time-off”.

The implication is, hard work and passionate engagement are mutually exclusive with taking time-off. That of course your high-performers don’t take enough holiday – because holiday detracts from performance. 

This idea is pervasive, often invisible, and deeply damaging to well-being, even where organisations make the right noises about time-off. 

Ben also talks about employee feedback like “I wasn’t sure if I was asking for too much” and “I felt like I was somehow doing something against the best interest of the company and my team-mates”. Again, those speak to common and profound cultural issues. Holiday seen as a distraction; something begrudgingly accepted more than encouraged.

Plus, even more damning, there’s little evidence of a significant causal link between holiday time and burn-out. 

Iran, for example, has the highest statutory minimum paid holiday time in the world at 53 days – while the US has no statutory minimum. But of course you can’t generalise that Iranian employees are less burnt-out than US employees. (In fact, the Iranian healthcare sector has been getting attention recently for extraordinarily high burn-out rates).

The point is, holidays aren’t a fix for the complex, nuanced and typically culture-driven issue of burn-out. Expecting employees to crash from holiday to holiday, using time-off as a pressure valve when work stress gets too much, isn’t sustainable. (How many times have you heard, “I need a holiday”?!)

The title of this piece isn’t glib – we need to avoid burn-out; cut it off at the roots, rather than applying holidays as a magic salve. 

Especially now, as burn-out rates spiral post-pandemic and holidays, for many, look very different indeed. (Sitting at home binging Netflix doesn’t have quite the pressure-relieving effect as, say, wind-whipped mountain walks and sun-kissed beaches…)

That’s about profound culture change, to evolve how work happens at a fundamental level. Not doing a Bumble and granting more recovery time but giving your people less to recover from. That is, addressing workplace burn-out by reducing workplace stress. 

Combatting stress: Embedding breaks into the flow of work 

A workplace can be fast-paced, challenging, demanding, and involve constant (positive) conflict without causing stress. 

Work stress is a reaction to feeling threatened, pressured, overwhelmed or unable to cope. In other words, it’s less about what your people do and more about whether they’re well-equipped to handle their workload. 

That’s not only about the literal tools they need to work. It’s about the processes and culture that facilitate, or hamper, how work gets done. Regular breaks – switch-off, active recovery periods – are an integral component.

Rather than allowing pressure to endlessly build then hoping holidays act as release valve, this approach sees stress dissipating before it ever builds into burn-out. It avoids burn-out becoming an issue in the first place.  

But changing how work happens isn’t straightforward. Building breaks into the flow of work might mean things like: 

  • Encouraging, even mandating, regular time-away from desks
  • Repurposing office space to include more collaboration and break areas
  • Increasing workplace well-being program uptake
  • Tweaking company policies to extend/increase breaks
  • Changing workflows to accommodate longer deadlines
  • Tailoring KPIs and performance management criteria 
  • Communicating new priorities to managers and clients
  • Ensuring leaders and managers model break-taking from the top
  • Booking space outside the office for employees to work
  • Evaluating workplace catering offering and food budget
  • Implementing walking meetings; tackling an endless meeting culture
  • Considering or accelerating flexible working plans 

Such multi-faceted changes demand buy-in from the top and throughout the organization. That’s impossible unless employee well-being moves from a line item on the corporate agenda to an urgent strategic priority.

Ultimately, that’s about building your business case for action with better evidence. Not just drawing inferences from symptoms by looking at the likes of absenteeism, turnover, engagement, or holiday taken but with granular, cause-level data about your people’s well-being.

With data like that, you can prove not only that your organization has a problem with burn-out but specifically which departments, teams and people are suffering most and why. 

And further still, which action is needed, where, to make fast improvements. Before burnout reaches terminal momentum and turns into a turnover problem – and ultimately, a business-survival problem. 


Burn-out is a complex problem that won’t be solved by performative sticking plaster fixes, like increasing holiday time (Bumble 👀). It demands we take a microscope to organizational culture and scrutinise how work really happens, to truly avoid burn-out in the first place. 

Systematic and sustainable change can only happen when organizations create a mechanism for gathering, analysing, and acting on granular and quantitative employee well-being data. To secure the buy-in you need to have the impact you want.

Quan's digital platform can help you embed well-being in your team or organizational culture as a preventative measure against burn out. Request a demo today!

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Topics: Burnout