Over the last year or so, advocates of employee health and well-being have not had an easy time of it.

We know that workplace wellness drives organizational performance: According to a Virgin Pulse survey, 85 percent of employers said effective wellness programs had a “high impact” on employee engagement, recruiting, retention, and company culture.

We also know that employees want to work for employers that support their well-being: A Zeamo survey from last year found that more than half of workers find wellness benefits to be a key factor in their employment decisions, and a little less than half of workers said they felt their employers were responsible for their health.

But giving employees the wellness support they need has proven to be a bit of a challenge. Burnout has grown so pervasive that the World Health Organization has classified it as an “occupational phenomenon.” While two-thirds of HR pros believe their organizations support employee work/life balance, only half of employees agree — largely because employees feel their bosses expect them to be available even outside of the office. And with companies scrambling to adapt to the COVID-19 outbreak, there’s even more pressure than usual to get wellness right.

Obviously, the most common approaches to employee wellness and work/life balance simply aren’t getting the job done. So what can organizations do to effectively support employee well-being?

With its new Vacay, Your Way program, PwC is a proposing a radical — and radically simple — new approach: Just shut it all down (every once in a while).

PTO, All at Once, for Everyone 

For a few years now, PwC has been instituting a firm-wide shutdown during the holiday season in order to encourage all employees to rest up and recharge for the coming year. The new Vacay, Your Way program expands that shutdown, instituting new closures around Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day.

“Our evolving flexible benefits strategy is based on feedback from our staff and partners,” explains Rod Adams, PwC’s talent acquisition leader. “In today’s tight labor market, it’s becoming more and more difficult to recruit — and retain — top talent. In an effort to address this, we are listening to what our people want and need to be successful, and we have heard resounding feedback that in this 24/7, always-connected world, there is a need for more time to disconnect and focus on mental and physical health.”

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Of course, these firm-wide shutdowns constitute more than just a nice gesture — they’re a savvy business move as well. As Adams rightly points out, it’s hard to attract and retain talent today. When you position your organization as one that takes big steps to boost employee wellness, you communicate to current and prospective employees that your company is a place where they can thrive and be their best. And when your employees thrive, so does your business.

“Taking care of ourselves and our well-being is so important in our fast-moving world, and we’re taking a fresh approach to recharging so we can be our best both inside and outside of work,” Adams adds.

Furthermore, this kind of mass unplugging offers a more powerful opportunity to really, truly, finally relax.

“When an entire company unplugs together, you get a different kind of reset,” Adams says. “Traditional vacation days or time off are still critically important, but they often mean that individuals are still getting emails, pings, and missed calls while they are away. The world of work does not stop when you go on vacation. But when we all take select days — or weeks — to unplug together, we have found that our people fully disconnect and return to work reinvigorated, with renewed energy and better focus, work product, and creativity. Even short shutdowns can have this impact.”

Making It Work

The world of work doesn’t stop when individual employees take time off — but it’s also true that the global economy doesn’t grind to a halt so PwC can shutdown. So how does the professional services giant make these firm-wide stoppages work?

“At PwC, we see success as a team sport — and that includes supporting each other when it’s time to unplug and get away,” Adams says. “We know that everyone has different schedules and busy times. There will be some cases where individuals will need to work during these holidays to meet client demands — e.g., tax deadlines around Labor Day.”

Rather than simply letting some workers miss out, PwC grants floating holidays to employees who have to work through the shutdowns, allowing them to have their own personal shutdowns when it works for them. Team leaders work with these individuals to schedule the holidays so they can really disconnect from work, just like everyone else.

If your company is thinking about following PwC’s lead here, don’t — that is, not until you’ve talked to your own workers about what they want. PwC rolled out these shutdowns based on feedback from employees. If there’s one takeaway here, it’s not that your firm necessarily needs shutdowns, too: It’s that you need to support your employees in the ways they’re asking you to.

“The key is to really listen to your people and what they want,” Adams says. “While it’s difficult to roll out company-wide change initiatives, it’s important to recognize that benefits must continue to change and evolve as the needs of our tech-enabled workforce evolve.”

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