Protect staff’s mental health with true time off

Even when employees are taking time off work, many of them aren’t really “off.” It can be hard to stop work when Wi-Fi and cell reception can turn any space into an office. Even when they are on paid time off, employees may feel pressure to stay available to clients and coworkers. They may also fear missing important meetings or communications from clients, or going back to a full inbox.

Jim Blake, CPA, COO at Mazars USA, who works in New York and New Jersey, said employees tell him that flat holidays are the best days off because email volume is dropping. “What we found is that the days off are really more beneficial,” Blake said.

When employees feel unable to separate from work, they and their employers may struggle with it. Lindsey Curley, CPA, CGMA, Senior Director – Fixed Services for the International Certified Professional Accountants Association, which represents the AICPA and CIMA, said burnout has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Burnout has contributed to employees leaving their jobs in droves over the past several months, a phenomenon dubbed “the Great Resignation.” Focusing on employee mental health and promoting leave are ways employers can address burnout and employee turnover.

Ensuring that employees who truly fire can reap the benefits. “When employees take time to reset, they return with renewed energy and new ideas that ultimately improve the company’s success,” Curley said.

Curley has taken steps on her own to balance work and home life. “I’ve removed work email from my cell phone, don’t turn on my computer on weekends or on a PTO, and my letter away clearly reflects these boundaries and sets appropriate expectations by saying that I won’t be available to answer the email until I get back,” Curley said. It is based in North Carolina.

Supervisors can follow these tips to help employees disconnect:

Strengthen your policies. Grant Thornton LLP introduced a flexible PTO policy about eight years ago, called “flexible leave,” and it has had success with employees, said Michael Monahan, national general manager of People & Community at Grant Thornton in New York. But he said regular messages on the subject are still important. Monahan’s team collaborates with the communications department to remind employees of the value of disengaging and taking time off to refresh.

lead by example. Employees are often reluctant to take time off when supervisors fail to do so, for fear of being less dedicated. Blake said that when supervisors are open about their time off, they show employees that it’s okay to disconnect. “I think it’s a way of showing that even when you get more responsibility, you have to find ways to recharge,” he said.

If an employee is on layoff, but answers a lot of emails or calls for meetings, ask the manager to kindly remind them that they’re supposed to take time off, said Sonya Freeman, CPA, chief culture officer for the accounting firm. PKF Texas in Houston.

It is also necessary to ensure that supervisors know how to help employees. Early in the pandemic, Monahan’s team began sending out “game manuals” to corporate leaders, which included information about how leaders could communicate with employees to make sure they felt supported. These handbooks included guidance on the best way to communicate one-on-one with each employee, led by the partner/manager. The guidelines have evolved to include small group hearings, virtual social events, in-person events consistent with CDC guidelines, and activities such as virtual yoga and meditation sessions. Playbooks are now distributed monthly, and each month a member of Team Monahan guides leaders through new ideas, approaches, and concepts to support their rollout and respond to any issues or concerns.

Do not contact employees while they are taking a PTO. One of the easiest ways to help employees relax is to avoid contact with them while they are on vacation. Monahan admits that he sometimes works over the weekend. Instead of emailing a colleague on Sunday, he said, he would schedule the letter to go out on Monday or Tuesday morning. Administrators can take the same approach, scheduling exit emails when the employee returns from the PTO. If you include employees on vacation when you email a large distribution list, include deadlines for any deliverables, so they know if your message requires immediate attention.

Global executive coach Sabina Nawaz said managers may be pushing employees to stay away from Slack or Teams channels while on vacation. This way employees won’t be bombarded with notifications that might tempt them to check their messages.

Offer incentives to take a PTO. To emphasize the value of a PTO, some companies reward employees for taking it. Blake said Mazars USA has motivated employees to take five straight days of PTOs this summer. Employees earned an extra day’s pay if they took an entire week off. Blake said some employees said they couldn’t miss five days of work and asked for special waivers — which show how difficult it can be to get workers to use their PTO. (These requests have not been responded to.)

Emphasis on planning around the PTO. It can be difficult to schedule a quiet vacation around a busy calendar. That’s why it’s important to encourage employees to plan their PTO in advance, before meeting invitations start showing up, Blake said.

One of the things that can make it difficult for employees to disengage is the fear of a backlog when they leave, said David Friedman, founder and CEO of CultureWise, a New Jersey-based consultancy. “We got caught up in thinking that there are things no one can do,” he said.

He suggests a thought exercise: Ask your employees to think about what would happen if an emergency situation arises and they are unable to function. What needs to happen to keep things running smoothly with their clients or projects? This practice can help your team plan for when employees will be in a PTO, Friedman said, giving employees the “psychological freedom” to truly separate from work.

If you have an employee who struggles to take their mind off work, ask them to think about what might happen in their absence. If you can address all of their concerns before their vacation, it may be easier for them to relax.

Consider extending fixed holidays. Mazars USA and Grant Thornton have both extended company holidays in recent years. For example, while planning the fiscal year, Grant Thornton decided to give its employees more time over the Christmas holidays. As a result, employees will receive 11 consecutive “appreciation days” from work, from December 24 through January 3.

Monahan recommends giving employees extended notice of vacation days across the new organization — rather than making them feel spontaneous — so employees can make the most of the time.

Build in time to disconnect. Corporate leaders agree that there are times when it can be difficult for employees to separate completely, especially given the seasonal nature of some accounting roles. But even when employees are unable to take extended leave, there are things companies can do to recharge employees.

At PKF Texas, some teams operate compressed weeks during the off-season, putting in slightly longer days from Monday through Thursday before taking Friday off. Freeman said the system was popular with employees.

Monahan said Grant Thornton had quiet hours with no meetings and fewer emails on Friday afternoon. Employees are given uninterrupted time to finish tasks before the weekend so they can relax more easily until Monday. Both strategies can help employees disconnect — even those who resist using vacation time.

Megan Hart Freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at

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