Leadership must change the culture around taking holiday to stop employee burnout

It's time for leaders to 'lead by example' on taking longer holidays and switching off

Three in ten UK workers considered quitting their jobs in the last year due to burnout where they don’t feel able to take their holiday entitlements.

Burnout has affected more than half of UK workers across the industries, where younger workers and working parents have been hit the hardest, while four in ten workers say it has affected their personal lives.

Employee burnout – symptoms causes and groups

Statistics from mental health startup Spill found “a significant proportion of workers believe that leaders are not doing enough to encourage employees to take time off for mental health reasons.”

Burnout, where symptoms include “fatigue, prolonged stress and lack of motivation”, was felt by 46% of UK workers involved in the study, yet only one in five (20%) took time off to manage these symptoms.

Parents with children under 18 (54%) were very likely to have suffered burnout during this time, where lockdown caused many working parents stress around childcare, homeschooling and remote working.

The research also found that 25-34-year-old workers (59%) were also more likely than the rest of the population to experience burnout, which could indicate deteriorating mental health and the social isolation felt by younger employees working remotely through the pandemic.

Mental health stigmas and presenteeism

When asked why they didn’t take time off, two in five said they thought “burnout didn’t warrant time off” while 36% said “they were too busy” and 25% said, “they felt guilty taking time off during the pandemic when so many were out of work or furloughed.”

A further 23% “were concerned asking for time off would make them appear weak at work,” while 27% said, “they didn’t feel comfortable asking their manager that they needed a break.”

This shows that stigmas around mental health and asking for time off are a problem, where poor communication between staff and management affected the respondents’ ability to take a holiday despite it being a workplace right; it also reveals that relationships between staff and management might need work.

Why staff don’t take their holiday entitlements

Workplace presenteeism or culture of being ‘always on’ could stop employees from taking time off as it could affect their career progression; 26% “believed that leadership within their companies favoured employees who took minimal time off and worked overtime during evenings and weekends.”

This is seen in the 8% of respondents who said they “were actively discouraged by companies from taking time off when they were experiencing symptoms of burnout” while 31% said, “they have felt pressure to move or cancel holidays due to workload in the past.”

These facts show that employees need more than sentiments from HR about the need to take a holiday. They need genuine engagement from management about taking holiday entitlements, or else they won’t feel empowered enough to do it. Furthermore, management must work harder to check in on staff workload and time management, as these are factors that can lead to stress and poor mental health.

Leadership needs to “lead by example” on taking time off

Burnout isn’t just affecting teams; it’s affecting leadership too, where 49% of board-level respondents said: “symptoms of burnout had impacted their personal lives.”

However, the research shows that leadership is often setting the example of an ‘always on’ culture which is “shaped in part by leadership’s approach to their own holidays”, which has impacted “how comfortable people felt asking for time off work.”

Employee sentiment on this is clear where 31% of workers “don’t believe their workplace fosters a culture that encourages significant time off.”

With leadership taking less annual leave than their workforce (around 65% in 2020 compared with the workforce who took 80%), and when they do, they’re likely not to switch off (66% said they check work notifications), leadership has to change and lead by example on taking real time off.

When employees do take breaks, longer periods off are better for mental health recovery, said the research, where respondents said: “it took them on average 3 days to stop thinking about work and relax.”


Calvin Benton, Founder, Spill said: “As a founder, I know us business leaders can be the worst offenders when it comes to taking time off and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. We rarely note the signal our ‘always on’ work lives send to the wider team and how it might discourage people to ask for time off when it’s needed most.

“Promoting the importance of time off is one of the easiest things businesses can do to help protect the mental health of their teams and challenge burnout in the workplace. We want leaders to also understand that taking time off is not just beneficial for the wellbeing of your teams, but ultimately it’s also good for business.

“As our research shows, work-related stress and exhaustion is pushing people to consider quitting their jobs and we already know it also accounts for around 45% of sick days. If you’re a business with an ambitious vision, that’s a dent in your long-term productivity.

“Mental Health Awareness week is a great time for business leaders to be thinking about what they can do to support their staff. A healthier approach to time off is a great place to start.”

Why burnout is a pre and post COVID-19 problem

Undoubtedly, employee burnout has been exacerbated by COVID-19, and working through a pandemic, but workplace presenteeism and leadership encouraging this by not taking holiday are long-term issues.

To counter burnout and high turnover of staff who would rather leave a position than take time off when they need it, managers must speak to HR about how to effectively communicate support for holiday entitlements.

They must also frequently check in on staff workload and stress, where they can cultivate closer relationships in the process, making employees more likely to feel comfortable about asking for allowances and taking their rights.

However, the best thing leaders can do is use their authority to set an example by taking holidays where they really switch off from work.

Spill has launched the #TakeYourHoliday campaign as part of Mental Health Awareness Week to encourage business leaders to counter burnout. The pledge asks business leaders to take three affirmative actions to foster a healthier culture around taking time off. To find out more, click here.

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