Tackling the time off problem in tech companies

Why Spill is launching the ‘Take Your Holiday’ campaign

3min read

Burnout is a big problem in tech. It’s probably the most common topic that comes up when I speak to HR leaders about the challenges facing their teams right now. And the stats back this up: in a survey of 1,400 UK working adults that Spill commissioned earlier this year, 82% of tech workers said they were close to burning out at some point during the last year, higher than the overall average. The Health and Safety Executive found that 43% of all sick days taken are now down to work-related stress and burnout.

Yes, burnout is a complex phenomenon, and at its core there are psychological reasons — to do with a lack of perceived progress towards meaningful goals — that can make burnout more likely to happen, as we explore in depth in our guide to preventing burnout.

But there are some basic hygiene factors that need to be put in place to avoid burnout as well: namely that humans need proper rest in order to function properly.

In that same Spill survey, we found some interesting changes over the last year. 30% of tech workers took less annual leave than they normally would, and more than half felt guilty about the annual leave that they did take. On top of that, 54% were worried about being seen as not working hard enough.

Holiday FOMO

I can relate to these findings more than anyone. Working in a fast-paced startup is exciting: every week iterations are being built, big realisations are being had, and the culture is being formed. Taking off a week can feel like missing out on a crucial part of the business’s journey. It becomes even trickier when you’re likely to be stuck at home during your annual leave, making it harder to put physical and mental distance in between you and work: as one developer put it, “the ROI of holiday has plummeted this year”. It’s tempting to just power through, telling yourself that you can rest at the end of the quarter, the end of the year, or when we reach our next funding round.

The problem with that? Taking three weeks off at the end of the year isn’t as effective as having more frequent breaks. A study of management consultants in Harvard Business Review found that time off needs to be regular and predictable, or else a vicious cycle begins: as people become more tired, they are more easily overwhelmed by the same workload, which causes them to focus inwards and so communication and collaboration plummet.

In short, a lack of holiday breaks down interpersonal relationships at work. I notice this anecdotally in myself: when I haven’t had a break in a while, I can still get by with doing single-player-mode work, but what I start to shy away from are the team brainstorms and difficult one-on-one conversations that need to be had. Unfortunately, great businesses aren’t built on a bunch of aggregated single-player-mode work. We need to lean into the difficult and messy interpersonal stuff to solve the big problems, which requires people to have sufficient emotional energy.

The Spill Holiday Pledge

At Spill, we initially tried to solve this problem simply by asking people to take more days off. This didn’t work at all: last year, most Spill employees didn’t take their full allowance. We tried offering unlimited holiday, which — like many other companies— didn’t increase the amount of annual leave taken either.

Our approach at Spill with internal policies and processes is always just to try a bunch of stuff and see what works. In 2021, we’ve found three specific actions helped to actually change behaviour and increase the amount of holiday days taken. (I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Q1 of this year was also our most effective quarter ever, in terms of features shipped and new companies signed.) That’s why we’re launching Spill’s ‘Take Your Holiday’ campaign this Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May 2021), which asks leaders in the tech world to pledge to take three meaningful actions to help their team feel more rested and reduce the risk of burnout:

  1. Lead by example and take your full holiday allowance in 2021 (and talk about it as a positive thing!).
  2. Add holiday as a key performance metric for all team members, designed to be checked in during team meetings or one to ones.
  3. Introduce one Recharge Day for your company in 2021. This is an extra day given to all team members, separate from their annual leave allowance.

By pledging to take these three simple but powerful actions, you'll be joining other high-growth companies collectively sending a message that time off is not only essential for combating burnout, but is actually celebrated as a necessity in your place of work.

To take part in the campaign, which will be promoted widely in Mental Health Awareness Week on both social media and in wider press, take two minutes to sign up here.

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 10th-16th May 2021.

Providing mental health support beats reading about it.