When we talk about the core challenge of balancing workload with wellbeing, one of the solutions we always recommend is that employers support employees to proactively balance challenge with recovery. That is, that we take good breaks during the day, in evenings and weekends, and have decent holidays. When we rest well, and often, we are better able to meet the challenges of our work and life and thrive – rather than burn out.
Ideally, we want taking breaks and managing our workload to feel like swimming in the ocean on a calm day. The waves come and they go, and we can count on the rest time in-between them to recharge and catch our breath.
If you’re reading this and feeling overloaded, you may be thinking that “taking a break” feels impossible. This is often the case when our workload is the equivalent of a stormy day at sea. The waves come without breaks, and each one can leave us struggling more than the last.
If this is you, or you see evidence of the stormy seas affecting people in your workplace, how do we take better breaks? Or, more to the point, how do we take breaks at all?
First, plan well before.
While any breaks are valuable, and spontaneous breaks can be fun – the Friday afternoon off, or the longer lunch – the hardest hitting holidays for workload are usually the ones that last a week or longer. Planning well for these means scheduling them proactively in in the first place and, ideally, taking holidays at regular points during the year, not just during summer break. It also means communicating widely with people that need to know, and meeting with your manager to negotiate cover while you’re off. While negotiating cover, it’s crucial that there is a joint agreement on the central premise that “I will not be checking emails, answering work calls, or progressing any projects”. And, if necessary, agreeing what steps need to be taken to make sure that that is possible.
Second, switch off during.
When we plan well (Step 1), we know that all our ducks are in a row, and we can turn our work devices off with confidence when it’s time to switch off into holiday mode. This is the most crucial part of maximising our holiday break – that we completely, psychologically detach ourselves from work. Psychological detachment only occurs when we mentally, emotionally, and physically separate ourselves from our work. Our holiday isn’t serving its purpose if one eye is on our work phone, or part of our brain is still mulling over work problems. If needed, keep a written list of important work-related thoughts as they appear, and commit to leaving them there on the page so you can let them go, rather than having them float around your holiday brain.
Third, reintegrate carefully after.
When you meet with your manager to plan cover for your holiday, make a point of discussing your reintegration plan. It may sound silly, but without a solid plan, we can tarnish the latter half of our holidays with the impending fear of what “Monday” brings – the unanswered emails and the metaphorical fires that need dousing. A good reintegration plan might include non-negotiable chunks of blocked out “me” time in the first few days, to sort and respond to emails and catch up on what was missed, before launching back into the land of meetings and action. Importantly, be clear on how you will build rest and recovery into your everyday rhythms, too.
Our key message here is that none of this is possible without a culture that supports good recovery practices. Organisations have a duty of care to support employees, helping each of us to “control what we can” and build in recovery time to our weeks. To achieve this, managers need to enable and empower employees to take regular and decent breaks, and to support their workload management when they are off. Colleagues must celebrate one another when they take breaks and embrace the opportunity to support this behaviour – knowing that the same will be reciprocated.
And at the heart of it, organisations need to consider whether they are resourced appropriately. If workload cannot be managed such that employees cannot take breaks, and – importantly – can’t return from breaks without working overtime, then there aren’t enough people doing the job, or expectations of output need to be re-evaluated. This often means that the root of managing workload and wellbeing comes with a short-term financial hit (e.g., hiring more people, or reducing workload demands), knowing that the long-term gain from prioritising wellbeing will be well worth the investment.