From 'time off' to 'time in': how to replace burnout culture

Dr Amanda McNamee
March 11, 2022
min read
women relaxing and doing yoga

Taking time off is essential for wellbeing. Our physical and mental health benefit from hitting pause. But many of us are unable to keep the pause button on. We check our emails, our messaging channels and even attend some meetings in our downtime. A staggering 65% of us eat into our leave time with work, making it a regular, almost expected occurrence. 

To avoid this, a number of big names including Nike, Bumble, and Linkedin have made headline news over the last 12 months for shutting up shop and giving their entire company a week off, “to mitigate burnout and prioritise mental health”. Their thinking was, if everyone is off, there is less temptation to check emails and slack. 

While the sentiment of this large gesture could be appreciated, research has shown that within two weeks of returning from holidays, the benefits of the holiday are long gone. And it’s not surprising really, since a week's holiday doesn’t address the causes of burnout or chronic workplace stressors. We’re only allowing employees to briefly take time out from a stressful environment that continues to be stressful on return. The employee's stress isn’t the problem: it’s the stressful environment we need to replace. 

Taking time in

A quick fix, or week off, isn’t going to solve this. We need a sustainable solution that will provide an effective culture change. Having spent most of my career invested in the science of behavioural change, I know sustainable change comes most significantly from education and training. We first learn what the benefits of change will be, and then, once convinced it’s worth the effort, we learn and practise the skills to facilitate change. 

Rather than taking 'time out' of the business to destress, at Fika Mental Fitness we advocate training businesses in how to take ‘time in’ their work days, to reduce these chronic stressors and replace our burnout cultures. We start with training leaders so they can role-model behaviours, in the form of: Do as I do, not just as I say”. This is essential: culture starts at the top, and training leaders to take time in will create a culture where this is normalised. But what does it mean to take ‘time in’ at work, and how can we do it? 

Taking time in is a way to ensure an ongoing culture of mental fitness exists, rather than the reactive burnout culture so many companies unwittingly foster. We need to train and model ‘time in’ for our leaders and staff, to achieve a culture where making time for mental fitness is the norm. 

Four mental fitness training techniques you can implement today, for yourself and for colleagues

  1. ‘Having a Fika’ is a great place to start taking time in. This positive Swedish tradition means to take time in your day to stop working and talk and connect with your team (usually over coffee and sweet buns). For those of us with hybrid or fully remote workplaces, making sure we schedule virtual coffee breaks with colleagues, to share and catch up, is vital to build and maintain relationships that allow us to bring our whole selves to work. These opportunities build our connection skills through active listening, a known stress reducer. More importantly, they give us an opportunity to bring our full self to work. We can share about our lives and interests beyond work, which can help us to understand each other's strengths but also external challenges we may face, which in turn can affect our work.
  2. The powerful impact of sharing in our work culture extends to knowledge sharing between leaders and employees. Leaders sharing knowledge facilitates the sharing of ideas, and using knowledge as a source of connection, along with building authenticity. For many of our leaders, this may seem like a challenging concept, and so we need to support them, typically through training, to become more open and confident in how they support their own teams. High levels of knowledge-sharing and trust can reduce emotional exhaustion, cynicism and intention to resign, creating meaning in work activities and reducing burnout. 
  3. Keeping the focus on leaders, investing in leadership development is key in preventing burnout, as good leadership skills reduce the risk of experiencing burnout for both leaders and their teams. When delivering our leadership training at Fika we focus on training mental fitness skills like connection and stress management, through exercises in active listening, effective communication, giving feedback and positive role-modelling.
  4. Most of us know our staff log in to work while on leave, but do we actively encourage the opposite - i.e. do we encourage staff to use flexible working? Do we take time in our own days to do something other than work? Encouraging senior leaders to actively and openly train their mental fitness or physical fitness during their work day is a key facilitator to get your staff to do the same. For senior leaders in your business, taking time in might be as simple as calendarising their use of flexi time, e.g. “Walking kids to school until 9.30am” every morning or “two-hour date lunch” every Thursday. We all have access to our colleagues’ calendars, and personally I love seeing non-work events sitting comfortably in a work diary. 

The current burnout culture we allow to exist places an expectation on employees to use their leave and time away to recover from their daily work-life and return refreshed. Imagine affording our employees the opportunity to work in a culture of wellbeing where they begin their holidays already refreshed. At Fika we can help you build that culture. 

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Dr Amanda McNamee

Dr Amanda McNamee is a Senior Mental Fitness Scientist at Fika. Amanda is a chartered Behavioural Psychologist and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Amanda is passionate about developing Fika's scientific evidence base and rigorous evaluation process in both workplace and education settings. Before Fika, Amanda spent time at Ofsted as an Evaluation Lead and more than a decade in academia. Her primary research focused on positive and social psychology and their underpinnings in behavioural change.

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