Thought leadership – switching off: how those at the top can lead the way

In this guest piece, Tony Gregg – Founder and Chief of Executive Search Specialists, Anthony Gregg Partnership – explains how executives taking time off can create a healthier company culture and a healthier bottom line.

We’ve all done it: failed to use all our holiday for the year.

According to BrightHR, 28% of UK employees cancelled holiday plans during 2020. While the Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly influenced that, a 2018 report by Glassdoor shows the situation wasn’t any better before the pandemic: 40% of UK workers only took half of their holiday allowance. According to Glassdoor, the average employee claimed just 62% of their entitlement.

So if we want people to be fully rested and productive, employers clearly have work to do encouraging them to have a break. But some of those most often resisting time off are c-level executives themselves.

The problem is particularly acute in the US, where CEOs of companies such as Whole Foods and Qualcomm have accrued thousands of hours in unused holidays. In 2020, Apple gave Tim Cook $115,385 for his banked holiday.

And even when top-level execs do step away from work, they’re renowned for not letting go completely – a problem that’s not confined to the boardroom. The same Glassdoor report found that among those respondents who did use their holiday allowance, almost a quarter regularly checked emails while away and some 15% worked through annual leave for fear of falling behind.

When things reach that stage, the company culture needs to be reevaluated and begin to prioritise employee wellbeing.

An unhealthy situation

A WHO study reported that working more than 55 hours a week – instead of the usual 35-40 hours – left people with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of fatal heart disease. And the benefits aren’t just physical.

A study by the American Psychological Association found that time off cuts down on stress by taking people away from the environment that causes stress and anxiety. After a break, you’ll return to work refreshed, with renewed purpose. It’s likely that you’ll also be more productive and creative, as well as more content in your role.

And if you need any more reasons to enjoy a break, remember this: it’s not just your own physical and mental health that’ll benefit – your team will be healthier too. That means fewer days off through illness, bringing obvious benefits to your organisation.

How to flick the OFF switch

Here’s an example of a CEO truly leading by example when it comes to annual leave: “You got this email immediately (classic autoresponder behaviour), which means I am out of office on holiday until Monday 25 April. While I hypothetically could reach my email, while I hypothetically do have my phone on hand, and while I hypothetically do have access to WiFi, I’d rather enjoy time with my family. My kids are growing up at the speed of a supersonic jet, and if I blink one more time, they’ll be over 30 and I’ll be in my 70s. I don’t want that.

If you still need to reach me, you can email X. Or you can email Molly X. They can point you in the right direction. Looking forward to reconnecting once I’m back. Thank you CEO”

Any employees working under that CEO will certainly be emboldened to take time off – as would other executives.

But when organisations constantly look to those at the top for direction, how can you take a step back and turn your notifications off?

The secret is planning ahead and setting out processes to follow in your absence. The key to this is choosing an able deputy, who’s fully trained in leadership and the intricacies of your working practices. Then you can trust them to keep the business running smoothly while you’re gone.

Keep clear

It’s absolutely vital to set clear preferences and procedures. For example, who can sign work off in your stead? Are there any projects you should be contacted about? How can people get in touch if they need to? And will there be any times when you’ll be completely off the radar?

If you make sure that you keep everyone in the loop – from your immediate team to key stakeholders elsewhere in the business – there should be no confusion and everyone should know what’s expected of them. If this is the first time you’re having a week or two off since taking the role, you might find that you can’t disconnect from the office completely. But the more breaks you take, the easier it’ll become.

Lead from a sunlounger

One positive to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic was that people began to place more importance on their work-life balance. Remarkably, this even included CEOs and top-level execs.
Employees (and candidates) now expect companies to take mental health and wellbeing seriously. Encouraging people to enjoy proper time off can play a key role in this – and also speaks volumes about your company culture.

So perhaps one of the best things you can do for your company is do nothing at all. As long as you’ve prepared the way, putting your feet up on a beach can actually be a great act of leadership.

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