From Nike to Bumble: What are the benefits of a company mental health break?

Ahead of World Mental Health Day this Sunday, Simon Blake, Chief Executive at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England spoke to Business Leader about the importance of a company mental health break.

Over 18 months into the pandemic, employee ‘burnout’ is an increasing concern for many companies. Brands ranging from Nike to Bumble have introduced ‘mental health breaks’ in an effort to improve post-pandemic staff wellbeing. But how do these company-wide closures work in practice and what impact do they have on employee mental health and wellbeing?

Even prior to the pandemic, mental ill health was an issue with 1 in 6 working adults experiencing symptoms associated with mental ill health at any given time. The pandemic has seen staff stress levels rise as people face uncertainty and job insecurity. So it’s no surprise that despite life starting to feel a bit more ‘normal’, people are exhausted – with more than half of employees reporting they feel burned out.

When work is busy and deadlines are looming there can be a temptation to just power through, and for some this can result in burnout, something many employers and employees will have contended with over the last year and a half.

Now more than ever, employers need to recognise the importance of annual leave and taking time off to relax and recuperate. Employees experiencing burnout are likely to feel depleted of energy and exhausted from coping with an increased workload and stress for an extended period of time. It can result in reduced productivity and negative feelings or complete apathy towards one’s job. Not only does this effect the employee and their delivery but it can impact a whole team if not managed appropriately.

Mitigating the impact of burnout from the pandemic has become a clear business imperative. Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year. But for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they get back £5 in reduced absence, presenteeism, and staff turnover (Deloitte, 2020).

So, what can we, as business leaders, do to help our teams? Rest and recuperation are key to self-care and employers are right to consider offering wellbeing days on top of annual leave to help support employees. Self-care is an important part of protecting our wellbeing and gives people the time to evaluate how they are feeling, discover the coping mechanisms that work best for them and enjoy time off with family and friends.

With a goal at MHFA England of supporting workplaces to create good health, as well as prevent ill health, we’ve worked hard to set up the right systems to support our own staff.

Our wellbeing strategy includes two total office close down periods – a Wellbeing Week in the summer and one in the winter. The emphasis on ‘total’ is important as it means all employees really do engage in ‘proper downtime’. It sends a powerful message from senior leaders when everyone at every level of an organisation is encouraged to rest and connect with their lives and interests outside of the workplace. It shows how we can all prioritise our mental health and wellbeing alongside delivering high performance.

Having run our Wellbeing Weeks for a number of years, it’s exciting to see new organisations implementing this concept. Wellbeing Weeks are a golden opportunity for everyone to find space and for staff to reset, boost energy levels and connect with their family, friends and themselves.

When we close down for the week, our staff are reassured that projects are not left unattended, or deadlines missed and therefore the temptation to check-in on tasks and emails is greatly reduced. We purposefully ensure that all staff are off at the same time and this approach means staff come back to much less email traffic from colleagues inside the organisation. This means no one fears returning to a full inbox or a ‘to do’ list that cancels out any benefits of a break from work.

What our staff get up to is entirely up to them and we always love hearing what people have been up to – whether that be visiting grandparents, volunteering, looking after children (all working parents and carers know the school holidays require a lot of annual leave), oversea visits and redecorating the lounge, or, often, as little as possible!

The most important thing, whether you’re thinking of offering a wellbeing day or a full wellbeing week, is that it needs to be built into a whole organisation approach to wellbeing. Wellbeing breaks should not be seen as a ‘bolt on’, instead they should be part of a relentless focus on building the right culture and ensuring a mental health and wellbeing strategy is properly implemented in the long term. Now is the time to get this focus right. If any good can come of the pandemic, it’s that organisations take the time to update their mental health and wellbeing policies and look at their culture. The healthier and happier the workforce, the more productive employees will be in the long term. From designing the stress out of processes and systems, to putting healthy job design first and meeting flexible working needs – all of these things help to create a more mentally healthy workplace.