More workers are planning to take a holiday and escape the office this year (63% up from 52% in 2013), according to a recent survey by CareerBuilder UK. While some bosses might not see a problem with staff choosing to work through their holiday, enlightened employers know that taking a break is beneficial not only to employees’ health but for the business.

The burden of stress
Stress at work is a growing problem and one that affects every industry. Some 15.2 million days were lost from work last year due to mental health problems, according to the Office of National Statistics. While sickness rates have reached a record low, days lost to mental health problems have seen a big increase and are now the single most widespread cause of long-term absence. This is despite the introduction of the government’s Fit Note programme four years ago and increased investment by employers in managing sickness absence.

So serious is the problem that nine out of 10 businesses are taking positive action to manage stress and anxiety, according to a recent CBI/Pfizer survey.

Encouraging employees to take their annual leave – and ensuring they switch off completely– is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to alleviate stress before it becomes a real problem. However, this isn’t always easy to do.

Employees don’t switch off
Some 60 per cent of employees report feeling moderately or highly stressed in their jobs, according to the CareerBuilder survey, yet nearly a third won’t be going on holiday.

The reasons for this: 23 per cent said they can’t afford one, a further 10 per cent said money wasn’t an issue, but still wouldn’t be going away. To make matters worse, 18 per cent of workers say they gave up holiday days last year because they didn’t have time to use them. Even if employees don’t go away on holiday, employers safeguard their mental wellbeing by encouraging them to completely switch off and recharge when away from the office.

The rise of modern technology and portable devices means that we are now permanently ‘plugged in’ and contactable, exposing us to longer working hours. For HR managers and company leaders who put a high priority on employee wellbeing, setting policies around emailing outside of hours may be worth considering.

In France, for example, new rules mean that those working in the digital and consultancy sectors are encouraged to ignore work email outside of office hours. The deal, agreed by employers’ federations and unions, states that workers will have to switch off work phones and avoid looking at office email, while companies must not pressure employees to check messages. Emailing outside of office hours is allowed only in “exceptional circumstances”.

Of course, it is up to individual company leaders to decide what works best for their business and employees, and decide if switching off entirely is suitable, as for some sectors this might be wholly inappropriate. Research suggests that some employees do indeed find it hard to cut the technological cord and don’t even disconnect when on holiday.

Bosses keeping tabs
Of the 1,000 workers surveyed by CareerBuilder, 20 per cent admitted that they contacted the office during their holiday, 17 per cent said they felt it was expected to check their email and 8 per cent felt they had to check their voicemail.

Pressure from managers isn’t just a ‘perceived’ expectation either. Nearly a third of managers (28%) said they expected employees to check in with work while on holiday – though 20 per cent would only expect this if the employee was involved in a big project or major issue with the company.

No wonder then that 10 per cent of employees say they’ve lied to their boss about being out of reach in order to avoid being contacted on holiday.

Worryingly, 19 per cent of workers have had to work while their family went away without them – and 10 per cent say that if they do go away, they feel guilty for not being at work.

Help employees get the most from their holiday
If you’re a HR professional or business owner wanting to help your employees get the most out of their holiday, there are things you can do to help:

  1. Set up an alternative contact. Encourage employees to work with their manager to set up an alternate means of contacting them in the case of a legitimate work emergency so that they don’t feel obligated to stay connected.
  2. Plan for your absence. Suggest workers coordinate with their employers and co-workers before the trip to make sure day-to-day responsibilities are taken care of. A little planning can go a long way in terms of helping employee’s relax and not worry about the office while they’re away.
  3. Schedule a decompression day. The transition back to the office can be a bit abrupt. Encourage workers to consider spending a day working at home before coming back to the office to catch up on emails and prepare for their return in a lower pressure environment.

Scott Helmes, Managing Director, CareerBuilder UK