Mental health at work: Does taking time off truly reduce stress?
Interviews / Opinions

Mental health at work: Does taking time off truly reduce stress?

, Former Content Marketing Manager

Hi, I’ll be out of the office from Tuesday through Friday this week. I’ll be checking email in the afternoons and will get back to you as soon as I can!

Does this out-of-office (OOO) message look familiar? Its tone is cheery, but the frantic promise to keep up with messages communicates anything but relaxing downtime.

Time away from work is crucial to employees’ mental health. Taking time to recharge boosts employee happiness and productivity, and keeps your retention rates high. But even as more employers tout the importance of employee well-being, time off, and work/life balance, this “not working (but really still working)” attitude is common among today’s workers.

If time off supports mental health at work, why are so many employees struggling to take it? Or coming back more worried and burned out than when they left?

Let’s look at how time off may be creating more employee anxiety and how you can help employees overcome that anxiety to come back refreshed and ready to work.

Why not being truly “out of office” hurts mental health at work

People are having a hard time unplugging from work, and it’s taking a toll. They overwhelmingly continue to work through their personal leave. In our own recent research, 30% of employees polled said they check their email regularly on vacation, and nearly half of those said they check it every day.

A big percentage of the working population is experiencing burnout, meaning issues like lower productivity, poor employee well-being, and high turnover rates are on the line. And with so many people working remotely, the lines between work and personal life are less clear than ever, making it harder to check out of work completely.

Businesses are aware that time off to refresh and recharge is important. But the current system isn’t working.

Unlimited vacation and other (unused) perks

Many companies offer PTO and a growing number have adopted the idea of unlimited vacation time. But in the past, research showed that in many cases, employees with no PTO limits actually took fewer days off than those with restrictions. And since the pandemic, employees, in general, are taking fewer days off, so even traditional PTO models aren’t being used to the full extent.

Though companies may support well-being with work/life balance, flexible schedules, and work-from-anywhere policies, they can’t guarantee employees will take time off from work to relax and recharge.

Simply offering the perks isn’t enough.

Mental health at work: How to dodge OOO anxiety

Why employees struggle to disconnect

Many employees experience what’s known as out-of-office anxiety. They have a hard time totally disconnecting from work for several reasons, including:

  • Feeling guilty for leaving coworkers to pick up the slack
  • Worrying about the workload that will be waiting for them when they get back
  • Fearing that being away will make them seem replaceable
  • Fearing that asking for time off will get them fired

Why all the guilt, anxiety, and fear?

It’s all about perception. Companies may say time off is available and encouraged but act in ways that keep workers from believing it.

Do managers act put out or angry when an employee asks for PTO? Do colleagues complain about the added workload during someone else’s vacation? Does work pile up unaddressed when the individual employee steps away from the job? Any of these situations communicate that vacation time or mental health days for employees are an inconvenience.

No matter what the employee handbook says, if your culture doesn’t support time off, that message will be louder.

How to help employees overcome out-of-office anxiety

When it comes to taking time off, employees need to feel free to unplug. Often they may take steps like turning off work notifications or deleting work-related apps from their phones which can help them not work while they’re on vacation. But these actions won’t necessarily keep them from thinking, or worrying, about work.

If you want your employees to come back to work more creative and motivated, there are more important things you can (and should) do to help make it clear that vacation time should be used to truly relax.

Here are four ways you can more completely support your employees’ mental health at work when it comes to taking time off.

1. Set the example

If managers and other leadership seldom take their vacation time or respond to messages constantly while out, employees will feel pressured to do the same.

Leaders can model what’s expected by scheduling and protecting their own time off. They should be equally protective of employees’ PTO. Discourage them from reaching out with a “quick question” or sending emails that require an answer while the employee is out on scheduled leave.

Employees should be able to take their cue from those at the top.

2. Establish backup plans

Help employees create a clear plan for what will happen with their work while they’re out. Can their projects be put on hold? What will move forward while they’re gone? Who should address any questions or concerns about the employee’s work while they’re out?

When you have an agreed-upon plan in place before they go, employees won’t have to worry that projects are falling through the cracks or that coworkers are being unfairly overloaded.

3. Give people the skills they need to relax

Help employees know how to make their time away restful by offering training on well-being at work. Even when they have permission to take time away and see that leaders prioritize it, they may not be sure exactly how to go from “away but anxious” to truly unplugged.

Offering courses that teach skills like time management and organization so people can feel ready to relax knowing they won’t lose track of their work while they’re gone. Give them techniques for reducing stress or coping with anxiety so they can leave those feelings behind as they take time away.

Knowing how to prepare for time off in advance will help employees feel better about coming back.

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4. Make PTO a priority

Let employees know you expect them to take advantage of their vacation time by keeping it front and center. Send out monthly or quarterly reminders of PTO buildup. Add vacation time goals to their regular performance reviews. Make sure they understand that their well-being is as important as their other career goals.

Inspire stronger employee mental health at work

Taking steps to protect employee well-being and focus on their mental health at work benefits your team and your company. With the right plan and help from you, your employee out-of-office messages should look more like this:

“Hi! I’ll be out of the office from Tuesday through the end of the week. I’ll get back to you then, but if you have an urgent question, feel free to reach out to my colleagues at”

This message communicates true time away from work and a seamless plan to return.

When you put helpful policies in place and show your team you’re invested in their well-being, you and your employees will benefit from their time off.

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Christina Pavlou - Former Content Marketing Manager

Christina, ex-Content Marketing Manager at Epignosis, focuses on L&D, diversity, and enhancing workplace well-being. Learn how to improve your work environment. More by Christina!

Christina Pavlou LinkedIn

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