Organizational Wellness

Time Off Isn’t Enough to Fight Employee Stress and Burnout

Aug 26, 2021
Last Updated Oct 11, 2023

It’s no secret that anxiety and depression worsened among employees during the pandemic, or that the recent surge in COVID-19 cases is bringing a new wave of employee uncertainty and stress. What is surprising — considering what we know today about the power of a holistic approach to employee wellbeing — is that so many employers continue to lean heavily on traditional time off as the solution to employee stress and burnout.

One survey found that more than 1 in 5 companies are offering employees more vacation time this year in response to the effects of the pandemic on employee wellbeing. Some organizations have gone even further to encourage employees to take time off. PricewaterhouseCoopers started paying employees to use their PTO — $250 for taking a full week off.

The U.S., in fact, has a law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), that allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss for approved “stress leave.” The law actually requires stress leave when a work situation is so serious, it can’t be fixed by a short break or vacation. 

According to the FMLA, an employee may need stress leave when:

  • They are unable to perform their routine duties
  • Their stress levels are affecting their ability to work effectively
  • Work-related stress is affecting their personal life or home relationships
  • They have symptoms of depression or anxiety, confirmed by their doctor

Of course, taking time off helps. But it’s not enough if you are truly committed to supporting employee wellness every day and making employees more resilient and ultimately more productive in every part of their lives. 

Time off is a Band-Aid, not a preventative move

First, offering (or even requiring) time off to help with burnout and stress is reactive. It’s treatment based — like putting a bandage on an open wound. The treatment doesn’t help prevent an injury, and taking PTO or leave after suffering serious stress doesn’t help employees become more resilient and better able toresist stress and burnout.

Also, mandating vacation will undoubtedly create greater stress for some employees. 

  • A time-off declaration pushes some people to take unpaid leave when they may be least able to handle it. Maybe their family is having a rough time financially. 
  • Maybe they feel lucky to be employed at all and believe they’re taking a risk if they take vacation days.
  • Maybe the stigma of being mentally unwell is too great for them (or still part of your company culture). People often feel that if they admit to needing time off to get themselves back on track that they’ll be considered less committed to the company and be vulnerable to lower performance reviews, to opportunities for good shifts or jobs, or to being caught in the next round of layoffs.

After all, American workers didn’t take an average of 33% of their allocated paid time off last year.

The answer lies in prevention and support for everyone

The answer is a proactive, preventive, and holistic approach to wellness that:

  • Supports the whole person — mental, emotional, and physical
  • Is able to adapt to the evolving needs of your entire workforce, not only those who are struggling

As we noted in our report, Supporting Employee Health and Wellbeing in the Wake of COVID-19, insights gleaned from a database of over 150 million employee survey responses and more than 30 million employee comments revealed that a solid foundation of health and wellbeing that supports employees and business goals needs to be approached from two different angles:

  • Ensure you have accurate and ongoing feedback about employee health and wellbeing
  • Implement a complete corporate wellness platform that encompasses both virtual and in-person opportunities for fitness, nutrition, 1:1 therapy sessions, and more

Combined, those two elements make it possible to establish a link between the health and wellbeing of your employees and your core KPIs — sales, customer satisfaction, turnover, and others. 

When you equip employees with the tools and resources for every stage of wellbeing, you greatly enhance their overall health and wellness on an ongoing basis. You stay ahead of the game, rather than relying so heavily on time off to heal the effects of stress and burnout (as helpful as time off can be). You also reduce the occurrence of unplanned absences, sick leave and stress leave, and presenteeism — people showing up for work but being “mentally absent.” In turn, you contribute to higher levels of performance and productivity to support your organization’s goals.

Time off is a great tool for better employee wellness and reduced employee illness. But it shouldn’t be the go-to instrument in your wellbeing toolbox. A wellness platform that is truly flexible and accessible, is holistic, and engages your entire workforce, is the solution for reducing stress and burnout before they cause harm.

Talk to a Wellhub Wellbeing Specialist_US1.png


Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


Our weekly newsletter is your source of education and inspiration to help you create a corporate wellness program that actually matters.

By subscribing you agree Wellhub may use the information to contact you regarding relevant products and services. Questions? See our Privacy Policy.