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Mark Mccartney

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Why HR needs to support leaders to take a full break from the office


Taking time for a proper break and switching off from work is vital for our mental health, but why are so many leaders bad at doing it?

Did you notice if the busy leaders you support looked refreshed after their holiday? This is vital for organisational health because we know the damage if leaders in terms of say decision-making are tired and stressed. 

Many of those leaders I coach believe that they need to work during holidays or everything will grind to a halt without them.

Very occasionally I work with a leader who believes that taking regular, full breaks away from the office is vital to their long-term performance, and health.

And of course they also make sure that their reports also benefit from uninterrupted periods during which they can replenish their energy levels.

HR can play a vital role in challenging the assumptions that underpin the belief that working faster, longer and harder is the answer to improving performance.

It comes from the top

I’m coaching busy leaders at an FTSE100 utility company who complain about receiving emails and text messages from the CFO late on a Sunday night or during a bank holiday. They acknowledge that they do the same.

The result? Poor decisions. Project proliferation. Information overload. Hours of pointless meetings.

How can HR help?

A leader I coached at this organisation said: “If this culture doesn’t change fast we won’t be able to recruit the best as they won’t want to sign away their life to a corporate organisation.”

The first step is the most difficult. I’II explain why. I coached the head of wellbeing at another FTSE100 organisation whose job is to reduce ‘busyness’ in the organisation but who ended up working longer, faster and harder in order to ensure the change project was effectively delivered.

Despite knowing all the dangers arising from overwork she could not change her behaviour. In fact, she didn’t even take a holiday for two years!

If you believe that the leaders in your organisation would benefit from taking a proper break – regularly -­ from work then you could consider some of the following suggestions:

  • Find an advocate to start the conversation with: a leader who believes that overworking leads to worse performance (there is ample research to support this)
  • Make the case e.g. ensure you have compelling stats to hand: one long-term study found that men and women who don’t take vacations are, respectively, 30% to 50% more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who do. People who work long hours have a 20% higher mortality rate than those who don’t. And women who fail to take time off work are more likely to suffer from depression
  • Learn what other organisations are doing to address the problem
  • Incorporate this topic into leadership development programmes e.g. the impact on the quality of decision-making resulting from never taking a full break from work        

A strategy to consider: where's the 'off' button?

A female entrepreneur hotelier who runs luxury family hotels provides an interesting perspective on the behaviour of busy leaders who stay at her hotels:

“Most of them don’t even know they are on holiday until day three. I think there is a huge opportunity to use the environment at a hotel to help ensure busy leaders get a real break. For instance, we are considering having a coach available for busy leaders. The coach will prepare the leader the week before e.g. sharing a process to ensure everything is taken care of at work.

"They will also be available during the holiday if the leader wants to check in to review their goal for the holiday e.g. I am going to check my email for 15 minutes every other day.

"And finally, the coach will have a brief call with the leader two weeks after the holiday to review the goal and to learn how to reduce wasteful busyness and increase productivity so that the leader is even more likely next time to benefit from the mental and physical rejuvenation a holiday should provide.”

A conscious decision

It’s very easy for busy leaders to a) work during the holiday and b) have little or no energy for their partner and children, which is my coaching focus – leaders with children under the age of 11. 

This is why it is vital that the leader makes a conscious decision before taking a holiday about how much they will allow work to intrude. If this does not happen everyone loses out. Parents can find themselves connected to their technology but disconnected from their children.  

A simple question for busy leaders with under-11s is: what do you want your children to tell their friends about your involvement during the holiday? How about this? “I wish I were one of Mum’s clients. She talked to them more than me.”

One important question to ask a week before the holiday is:

Do I want...

  1. an interruption break? (being contactable 24/7 by your organisation)
  2. a partial break? (being contactable at set times)
  3. or a total break? (not being contactable for a set number of days during the holiday unless there’s a ‘red light’ emergency on terms you’ve pre-defined with your team)

What if the busy leaders you are supporting are still not convinced?

Here’s one of the many ‘postcards from the future’ regrets I hear when coaching leaders who did not act this way.

A City lawyer said: “I was so engrossed in my work that I was constantly working during family holidays. Sadly, much of this work was non-urgent and non-important because I can’t really remember exactly what I was doing apart from being crazy busy…”

Disconnection: a vital leadership skill?

The ability to fully disconnect from work for short periods regularly is now a vital skill for leaders.

And HR can play an important role in persuading and upskilling leaders to enable them to disconnect.  The benefits are huge for the leader, their reports, the organisation and their relationships outside work. 

Mark specializes in coaching leaders with younger children who, irrespective of nationality, industry sector or gender, face a challenge: "I'm working harder than ever … and this is unlikely to change … meaning I have less and less time to spend with my children … and I see no way out of this." Clients over the last year include a top five law firm, a leading global IT company, one of the UK’s largest utility companies and a major telecoms provider. Mark enables leaders to change the way they work by reducing busyness and increasing productivity in order to free up time and energy to play a more active role in their children's early life.

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Mark Mccartney


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