Technology has become both a blessing and a burden. Our devices allow us to work from anywhere, be flexible, and, in theory, strike work-life balance. But the double edge to that connectivity is that people are increasingly working late into the evening, responding to texts at 10 p.m. or checking reports during family events.
In fact, Inc. reported that we touch our phones 2,617 times per day, which studies show can increase our susceptibility to mental health issues like stress, depression, and sleep disorders. Many lauded France last year after the country passed a labor law that allowed employees to disconnect and ignore work-related communications after the workday ended — and required employers of more than 50 workers to come up with new communications protocols to prevent “email spillage.”
To outsiders, it looked like a smart move: Overwork costs the U.S. healthcare system $48 billion per year. While some jobs used to carry the expectation of being on-call 24 hours a day — such as medicine — every job now has the capability to become a 24/7 role, thanks to technology. Burnout seems to loom on the horizon for every tech-savvy employee, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
The Building Phase Leads to the Scaling Phase
When entrepreneurs are building their businesses, long-term impacts on productivity and morale may not be their main focus. In their efforts to build something durable and successful, long hours can be expected. But those long hours come at a cost: Safety becomes an issue, and employees call in sick more often and experience declines in their productivity levels as burnout sets in. (And bless the entrepreneur who thinks he himself is immune to these diminishing returns.)
Teams can only run so long on Dunkin Donuts coffee and energy drinks. What began as a sprint eventually has to transition into a marathon if a budding company — and its team — is expected to last. The effects of burnout are particularly acute for startups. With smaller teams expected to wear many hats and maintain high productivity, the loss of a single employee’s efforts can collapse the whole. Multiply that if the CEO himself is the burnout victim — which isn’t unlikely in an environment where a whopping 72 percent of entrepreneurs suffer from mental health issues.
Many argue, however, that in an entrepreneurial climate that promotes hustling harder, not getting sleep, and outworking the competition to sheer exhaustion, companies can’t survive if they take a day off. Not only can they survive, but they can thrive — and outlast many of their competitors because they have endurance. Every growing company should institute policies to build in real vacations for this very reason.
Polishing Policies Till They Shine
Why target vacations rather than day-to-day schedules? Vacations, or long-term chances to recharge, have the biggest impact. People who take 11 or more of their vacation days are 30 percent more likely to earn a promotion, according to Harvard Business Review. These people see a boost in their creativity, problem-solving abilities, and big-picture perspectives because they get out of their daily setting and put more gas in their tank.
Bandwidth, a publicly traded technology company based in Raleigh, N.C., is valued at more than $630 million, and its stock is up 60 percent. It’s also an organization with a vacation embargo policy. In an interview with NASDAQ, Bandwidth CEO David Morken discussed his company’s vacation embargo program: “You are required to take all of your vacation time each year so there’s no pressure about not taking vacation. And when you go on holiday you are not allowed to contact anybody related to work, at the office, a vendor, a customer, no one. Additionally everyone is prohibited from contacting you.”
Morken’s goal with this policy is twofold. First, employees leave and get a chance to refresh, unplug, and recharge. In a tech business focused on creating voice and messaging API services, people can burn out easily. Second, he can build a resilient team capable of making decisions without him because his team members are forced to take action. On his last vacation, Morken and his family visited the Wind River Mountains, 18 miles away from the nearest road. He couldn’t contact anyone — and didn’t want to — and the company moved along just fine without him.
Likewise, Denver-based FullContact awards $7,500 in vacation stipends to each employee each year. The catch? Employees only get the money if they actually go on vacation and completely unplug from their work. The organization developed the policy after its CEO, Bart Lorang, saw a photo of himself on “vacation” riding a camel by pyramids — and checking his email on his phone.
McCarty said of the policy, “We have a company that takes our employees seriously, almost as much as what we produce,” McCarty says. “We focus on the best ways to keep employees happy and healthy. If they’re not getting away and disconnecting periodically, we’re not getting their best work.”
With Americans wasting 658 million vacation days in a single year, the only way some employers will get their always-on employees offline is by making them go off the grid. By instituting policies that start at the very top, entrepreneurs can cut employees off from their work periodically — ensuring the work they actually do is the very best it can be.