Workplace Wellbeing: Taking to the bed to sleep off burnout 

Employees in Ireland report high levels of pressure and stress. Could company-approved ‘duvet days’ help them to recover and reset?
Workplace Wellbeing: Taking to the bed to sleep off burnout 

Pic: iStock

WE all have mornings when we wake up unable to face the thought of going to work. Instead of rising and shining, our energy levels are at rock bottom and our ability to focus is non-existent. Whether it’s caused by overwork, burnout or emotional exhaustion, the result is the same: we need time out.

Life’s inevitable ups and downs mean that everyone occasionally feels like this. Some respond by going to work regardless because they believe there’s no alternative. Others decide that their best course of action is to ‘pull a sickie’ and ring their boss, feigning illness so that they can take a much-needed break.

A company-approved ‘duvet day’ offers an alternative approach. First introduced in Britain in 1997, duvet days are now offered as a common perk by employers in the US and Canada and by multinationals such as Facebook and Google.

“Duvet days are a recognised approach to promoting mental health in the workplace,” says Siobhán Murray, a psychotherapist and author of The Burnout Solution. “They allow employees to take a day off without needing to provide a specific reason for their absence, to support employee well-being and reduce overall absenteeism due to stress and burnout.”

Dr Janine Bosak, professor of work and organisational psychology at Dublin City University, identifies several reasons companies allow employees to avail of these unscheduled days off work, with no questions asked or leave application or medical cert required.

Duvet days, she says, demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to staff wellbeing.

“This helps to attract and retain talent, especially to attract and retain employees who value work-life balance and flexibility.”

Another is that duvet days can help address burnout. “Employers are paying heightened attention to the needs of workers when it comes to mental health support,” says Bosak. “Employee burnout and stress levels are at an all-time high, and as stress and burnout can be serious problems for individuals and organisations, it’s critical to get ahead of it. Duvet days are one way of doing this.”

Siobhán Murray, psychotherapist
Siobhán Murray, psychotherapist

Stressed workforce

While it may be easier for large corporations to budget for employee duvet days than cash-strapped small to medium-sized companies, there is an argument that such initiatives could work in an Irish context.

Statistics consistently show that workers here are under significant pressure. This year’s Price Waterhouse Coopers Hopes and Fears Workforce Survey reported that 23% of employees were overworked. Last year, a Gallup poll of 11 European countries and the US found that Irish workers were the most likely to suffer from burnout or stress, with 30% admitting to feeling burned out often or always and 65% stating they had experienced a lot of stress at work the previous day.

Murray says burnout can have serious implications for employees and their employers: “For individuals, it can lead to feelings of constant fatigue, a sense of disconnection from work and family, sleep disturbance, irritability, cynicism about work and life, and social withdrawal.”

Burnout can impact an organisation’s bottom line too. Disengaged employees perform poorly, which affects productivity levels. They are also more likely to take sick leave and may even decide to leave the workplace altogether.

Bosak believes that introducing duvet days is one-way companies can take action to prevent this. “Being able to take a day off when you need one without any stigma attached means it’s possible for you to take a break to recharge your batteries,” she says.

She cites a 2010 study from the University of Wales which showed how breaks can protect employees’ health and well-being and maintain their performance. “Breaks can range from micro-breaks during the workday to a whole day off or a vacation,” she says. “They all help employees to stay energised and continue performing at a high level.”

There is one potential glitch. A Canadian study carried out in 2022 found that employees with heavy workloads, which in itself increases their risk of burnout, were the least likely to take a break, even when they needed one. They didn’t want to risk falling behind in their work by taking time off.

According to Murray, there’s only one way of dealing with this issue: ensuring that senior people within the organisation take duvet days too.

“Duvet days provide employees with a break when feeling overwhelmed, and are helpful in the short term to recharge and manage stress, but employees have to feel comfortable availing of them,” she says. “It helps if those in leadership are seen to take their duvet days and to fully endorse the benefits of such unjustified time off.”

Energising employees

Other guidelines should also be implemented to ensure a company’s duvet day policy benefits everyone. Bosak believes that from the outset it should be made clear that the company doesn’t want exhausted employees coming to work to sit lethargically at their desks, being unproductive and bringing down morale.

Instead, it wants energised employees who bring a positive sense of purpose to their work and duvet days can be used as a tool to help them do this.

“Employers should have a clear policy in place that outlines the purpose of duvet days, states the number of duvet days employees can avail of and the procedure for doing so,” says Bosak.

Most importantly, employers should discourage employees from working on duvet days. Rather than using the day to clear your inbox or catch up on a work project, Bosak says it’s more beneficial to clear your mind by going for a walk, doing yoga or taking duvet days and spending them in bed, catching up on sleep.

“Putting away all mobile devices, disconnecting from work and switching off are critical for recovery,” she says. “Whether it’s having a lie-in or meeting friends, we all have our individual ways of recovering from stress.”

For all their benefits, Murray reminds us that duvet days aren’t enough to counter the stress experienced in companies where overwork and high-pressure form part of the culture. “They don’t directly address the root causes of burnout and shouldn’t be used as a stand-alone solution to combat it,” she says.

Because burnout develops over time when people don’t have sufficient resources to deal with the demands of work, more wide-ranging supports are required.

“Duvet days are a supportive measure, but a culture of being overworked needs broader change, including bringing in reasonable workloads, encouraging employees to disconnect outside of working hours and providing resources for stress management,” says Murray.

For employers considering introducing duvet days, Bosak has a final argument to make: they help to create a work environment with honesty and trust at the forefront.

“Duvet days are likely to contribute to a positive organisational culture in which nobody has to call their line managers pretending to be sick,” she says. “Instead, they are trusted to avail of these days when they really need them, with benefits for their wellbeing and the overall wellbeing of the organisation.”

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