Most people’s summer holidays will be rapidly fading into the distance by now. But, with National Work Life Week being this week, research has highlighted how failing to get away from work can lead to an early death, even if you otherwise lead an active and healthy lifestyle. To this extent at least, it can be argued that “workplace” health very much starts at home.
Employee health and wellbeing – holidays and time away from work really do matter
Taking fewer than three weeks’ holiday a year could result in early death, even if an otherwise healthy lifestyle is maintained, research from Finland has argued.
With National Work Life Week having taken place this week, it's a timely reminder that “workplace health” needs to be as much about emphasising “away from workplace” health as it is about managing health risks at work.
National Work Life Week is run by Working Families and includes toolkits for employers. Employers are being encouraged to use the week to kickstart debate and discussion, provide activities for staff, and to showcase their flexible working policies and practices.
Of course, the concept of work-life balance isn’t that hard to get your head round, and is probably best summed up in that old cliché “no one ever said on their death-bed ‘if only I had spent more time at work’”.
‘Always on’ workplaces
But, in truth, there is a challenge here for employers and employees as well as occupational health and health and wellbeing professionals. Long-hours working, demanding and deadline-driven workplace cultures and, of course, the “freedom” of technology that allows us to work anywhere at any time of day can all contribute to creating an “always on” workplace mentality that is damaging to employee health and productivity.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this latest research from the University of Helsinki, however, is it emphasises that taking fewer than three weeks’ holiday a year could result in early death, even if a healthy lifestyle is maintained (our italics).
In other words, even if you keep yourself otherwise fit and healthy – take exercise, have a good diet, don’t smoke and so on – the employee health benefits of doing all this still do not outweigh the long-term health benefits associated with taking regular time away from work.
What, then, should employers make of this?
First, it’s about practical things. Make sure employees do take their full holiday allocation, and this is something to keep an eye on over the next few months if your holiday year-end cut-off is the end of the calendar year.
Make sure, when staff are away, that they are genuinely left alone to refresh and recharge; that there is proper delegation and cover in place for their work and they are not encouraged “just” to check this or that email or message, for example.
More widely, as Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, advises, it is about employers stepping back and taking a candid look at the workplace culture and environment they are fostering and asking, “is this healthy?”.
“National Work Life Week is a great moment, yes, to kickstart conversations around whether you’re doing enough to help people properly balance work, home and leisure in our connected, ‘always on’ world,” she says.
“But it is also a good time to reflect on whether, by chance or design, your organisation is slipping into unhealthy behaviours. Within this, it can be valuable for senior managers and leaders to be modelling healthy work-life behaviours – leaving on time, not sending emails at weekends, genuinely being out of reach when off and so on.
“This gives ‘permission’ for others to follow suit. And these are messages that, while relatively self-evident, occupational health and HR can often be doing more to promote and champion when it comes to employee support and employee wellbeing. Just because we all know, in principle, that we should work to live rather than the other way round, doesn’t mean it always happens.”