Why more companies like Nike are closing their offices for a mental health break

September 6, 2021, 11:30 AM UTC

A week-long mental health break is quickly becoming a popular perk as companies attempt to address worker burnout. 

Last week, Nike became the latest company to close its offices for a week to give employees a mental health break. That’s after LinkedIn, Bumble, and Hootsuite have all shut down their offices for a week this year to address mental health.

“This past year has been rough—we’re all human! and living through a traumatic event!—but I’m hopeful that the empathy and grace we continue to show our teammates will have a positive impact on the culture of work moving forward,” wrote Matt Marrazzo, a senior manager at Nike on his LinkedIn page. “It’s not just a ‘week off’ for the team… It’s an acknowledgment that we can prioritize mental health and still get work done.”

Shutting down the office for a week, “sends a message that your health and wellbeing is important,” said Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice president of research at LifeWorks, a Toronto HR software provider. She’s seen more CEOs and executives speaking publicly about wellbeing, balance, and mental health, and a growing number of organizations rolling out mental health programs and benefits.

Glassdoor will give its 800 workers a week-long mental health break this winter. Microsoft added five “wellbeing days” to it’s paid time-off benefits, and IBM now provides additional paid sick time and time off when it’s “just too difficult to work.”

Research by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence found that 2020 was the most stressful year people have ever experienced in their working lives. Three-quarters of employees surveyed said the pandemic negatively affected their mental health, and another 76% said companies should be doing more to protect workers’ mental health. At least 85% said their work-related stress affects their home lives.

While workers report a slight improvement in their mental health in recent months, compared to that of March 2020, more people report feeling quick tempered and irritable, according to the August Mental Health Index by LifeWorks. It also found that nearly one-third of 5,000 people surveyed either didn’t feel that their organization had a culture which supported their wellbeing or weren’t sure of that support.

While a week-long mental health break may help Nike’s corporate workers, it’s not necessarily an option for all companies or all employees. The athletic shoe and apparel giant received criticism online because its retail store workers did not get that break, and those workers—in addition to other people who work in healthcare, transportation, service, and hospitality—are often taking the brunt of our collective COVID-fatigue. 

“People are on edge and they take it out on retail, hospitality, and transportation workers,” said Mark Debus, behavioral health team leader at Sedgwick, a Memphis-based global claims management company. “It takes a lot of emotional energy to put on a brave face and deal with people screaming at you.”

With nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers searching for a new job, many companies have been rushing to raise pay, but they need to do more to ease the stress of essential workers, he said, including offering paid health insurance, and full-time hours with predictable schedules, and even free mental health counseling.

Meanwhile, employers can require corporate workers to mark a clear end to the working day and maintain clear boundaries between work and life—such as a “no email after hours” policy, said Thomas Roulet, a sociology and management fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. Employee surveys can help take the pulse on how workers are feeling. “Being able to detect pockets of mental health issues, such as overworked teams or groups,” he said, “is crucial.”

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