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U.S. workers are burned out. Could company-wide vacations help?

As workers quit in record numbers, some companies are trying address burnout with a new approach to vacations: shutting down the entire office.

U.S. workers are burned out. Could company-wide vacations help?
[Source photos: Dan Freeman/Unsplash; Chris Lawton/Unsplash; monkeybusinessimages/iStock]
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Burnout may not be classified as a medical diagnosis, but of late it certainly feels epidemic. “The symptoms of burnout have become medical,” a primary care doctor wrote in The Atlantic recently. “The work of living through a pandemic has been making us sick.”

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Months after Americans collectively hit the pandemic wall, burnout seems to have hardened into a permanent condition. Parents are exhausted after spending nearly 18 months trying to balance full-time jobs with remote schooling and caregiving obligations. Other workers may be struggling to find motivation as they cope with grief, or leaving thankless jobs that they held onto amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.

As workers quit in record numbers, employers are being confronted with the fallout from the sustained stress of the pandemic. (In June, about 3.9 million workers left their jobs, marking the third consecutive month of unusually high turnover.) Over the last few months, companies—including LinkedIn, Hootsuite, Mozilla, and Bumble—have tried to stem this burnout with a new approach to vacation time: shutting down the entire office for a week. The idea is to help employees completely detach from work, without checking email or feeling like they have to play catch-up once they’re back in the office.

“Everyone was just getting increasing Zoom fatigue and feeling the stress and burnout of the year that we’ve all had, and increasing difficulty separating work and home,” says Bumble president Tariq Shaukat. “So we started thinking: What do we do? Do we give people more time off?” The company started by instating “focus Friday,” which meant employees would be free of meetings, emails, and Slack messages on one Friday each month. But Bumble found that wasn’t cutting it. “Things like that worked well, but we sort of realized that the constant background noise of the company, if you will, was preventing people from really, truly unplugging,” Shaukat says. “So that led us to this idea of shutting down the company for a week.”

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After testing out company-wide time off for a week this summer, Bumble has now introduced a new policy that will shut down the office two weeks out of the year. “We heard such good feedback, and we heard so many people basically tell us that it’s the first time in forever that they’ve been able to truly disconnect, during the pandemic or pre-pandemic,” Shaukat says. “I think we actually gained a lot of creativity and productivity from the team because they were so recharged. And they were asking—can we do this again?”

In addition, Bumble is granting unlimited vacation time to all employees, regardless of where they’re located. Flexible vacation policies—once viewed as a desirable perk at tech companies and startups—have gotten a bad rap in recent years for being so ambiguous that many employees are discouraged from taking time off; Bumble’s new policy, however, includes mandatory minimums to ensure workers take the time they need.

But will this new perk outlast the pandemic? At the moment, other businesses that have tested out company-wide paid vacation haven’t taken the leap to formalize it as policy—perhaps because it can be a logistical challenge to coordinate schedules and prepare the business for a week off. (Even picking the best two weeks for its company-wide vacations has proven complicated with Bumble’s far-flung employees working out of several countries.) When Bumble gave employees a week off in June, it wasn’t possible for every worker to go on vacation: Along with sister company Badoo, Bumble has more than 40 million monthly users, which meant that some of its community operations staff had to stick around to provide customer support.

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“This time around, we could not afford to give 100% of the company the whole week off,” Shaukat says, adding that people who had to work did get to take a different week off. “As we think about this moving forward, we are actively working with those teams to do a better job of staggering shifts.”

That burnout is an occupational hazard shouldn’t be news to anyone. It may seem almost quaint now, but Americans were on the precipice of chronic burnout well before the pandemic. And after the devastation of the pandemic, policies like this one could be a way for companies to acknowledge that the last year and a half has been anything but normal, and that they aren’t conducting business as usual. While a company-wide vacation or two may not be a perfect salve for many employees—or a fix for burnout—it could be a step in the right direction.

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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