Protect staff’s mental health with true time off

By Megan Hart

Even when staff take time off from work, many aren't truly "off." It can be difficult to shut out work when Wi-Fi and cell reception can turn any place into an office. Even when they're on paid time off, staff may feel pressure to stay available to clients and co-workers. They may also fear missing important meetings or communications from clients, or coming back to a full inbox.

Jim Blake, CPA, COO at Mazars USA, who works in New York and New Jersey, said that staff tell him firm holidays are the best days off because then the volume of email is down. "What we've found is those days off are really the most beneficial," Blake said.

When staff feel unable to disconnect from work, they and their employers can suffer for it. Burnout has increased dramatically during the pandemic, said Lindsey Curley, CPA, CGMA, senior manager–Firm Services for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA. And burnout has contributed to employees' leaving their jobs in large numbers over the past several months, a phenomenon dubbed the "Great Resignation." Focusing on employee mental health and promoting time off are ways employers can address burnout and turnover.

Ensuring that staff truly disconnect can reap benefits. "When employees take time to reset, they return with renewed energy and fresh ideas which ultimately improve firm success," Curley said.

Curley has taken steps herself to balance work and home life. "I removed work email from my cellphone, I don't turn on my computer on weekends or on PTO, and my away message clearly reflects this boundary and sets appropriate expectations by saying that I will not be available to respond to email until my return," said Curley, who is based in North Carolina.

Supervisors can follow these tips to help staff disconnect:

Reinforce your policies. Grant Thornton LLP rolled out a flexible PTO policy about eight years ago, called "flexible time off," and it's been a hit with employees, said Michael Monahan, national managing principal of People & Community at Grant Thornton in New York. But regular messaging on the topic is still important, he said. Monahan's team partners with the communications department to remind staff about the value of disengaging and taking time off to refresh.

Lead by example. Staff are often reluctant to take time off when supervisors fail to do so, out of fear of looking less than dedicated. When supervisors are open about their time off, they show staff that it's OK to disconnect, Blake said. "I think it's a way of showing that even as you get more responsibility, you have to find ways to recharge," he said.

If an employee is off, but they're responding to lots of emails or calling in for meetings, have a manager gently remind them that they're supposed to be taking time off, said Sonia Freeman, CPA, chief culture officer at accounting firm PKF Texas in Houston.

It's also vital to make sure supervisors know how to assist staff. Early in the pandemic, Monahan's team began sending out "playbooks" to firm leaders, which included information on how leaders can check in with employees to ensure they're feeling supported. These playbooks included guidance on how to best conduct partner/principal-led one-on-one outreach with every employee. The guidance evolved to include small group listening sessions, virtual social events, in-person events consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and activities such as virtual yoga and meditation sessions. The playbooks are now distributed monthly, and each month a member of Monahan's team walks leaders through the new ideas, approaches, and concepts to support their rollout and respond to any issues or concerns.

Don't contact staff while they're taking PTO. One of the easiest ways to help employees to unwind is to avoid contacting them during their time off. Monahan admits he sometimes works over the weekend. But rather than emailing a colleague on Sunday, he'll schedule the message to go out Monday or Tuesday morning, he said. Supervisors can take the same approach, scheduling emails to go out when an employee returns from PTO. If you include staff who are on vacation when you're emailing a large distribution list, include deadlines for any deliverables, so that they know whether your message requires immediate attention, he suggested.

Managers might also prompt staff to stay off of Slack or Teams channels while on vacation, said global CEO coach Sabina Nawaz. That way employees won't get bombarded with notifications that may tempt them to check their messages.

Offer incentives for taking PTO. To emphasize the value of PTO, some firms are rewarding employees for taking it. Mazars USA incentivized staff to take five consecutive days of PTO this summer, Blake said. Employees received an extra day's pay if they took a whole week off. Some staff said they couldn't miss five days of work and asked for special exemptions — which goes to show how difficult it can be to get workers to use their PTO, Blake said. (Those requests weren't granted, he added.)

Emphasize planning around PTO. It can be tough to schedule a peaceful vacation around a packed calendar. That's why it's important to encourage employees to plan their PTO well in advance, before the meeting invitations have started rolling in, Blake said.

One of the things that can make it difficult for employees to disengage is the fear that work will pile up when they're gone, said David Friedman, founder and CEO of consulting firm CultureWise, located in New Jersey. "We get trapped into thinking there are things no one else can do," he said.

He suggests a thought exercise: Ask your staff to consider what would happen if an emergency came up and they couldn't work. What would need to happen to keep things running smoothly with their clients or projects? This practice can help your team plan for when staff is on PTO, giving employees the "psychological freedom" to really disconnect from work, Friedman said.

If you have an employee who struggles to get their mind off work, ask them to think through what could happen in their absence. If you can address all their concerns before their vacation, it might be easier for them to relax.

Consider extending firm holidays. Mazars USA and Grant Thornton have both extended company holidays in recent years. For example, while planning for the fiscal year, Grant Thornton decided to give its people more time off around Christmas. As a result, employees will have 11 consecutive "Appreciation Days" off from work, starting Dec. 24 and running through Jan. 3.

Monahan recommends giving staff considerable notice of new organizationwide days off — rather than making them feel spontaneous — so employees can make the most of the time.

Build in time to disconnect. Firm leaders agree that there are times when it will be difficult for employees to completely disconnect, especially given the seasonal nature of some accounting roles. But even when staff are unable to take an extended vacation, there are things firms can do to get staff to recharge.

At PKF Texas, some teams work compressed weeks during the off-season, putting in slightly longer days Monday through Thursday before taking Fridays off. The system has been popular with employees, Freeman said.

And Grant Thornton has instituted quiet hours with no meetings and fewer emails on Friday afternoons, Monahan said. Employees are given uninterrupted time to finish tasks before the weekend so they can relax more easily until Monday rolls around. Both strategies can help employees disconnect — even those who resist using vacation time.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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