Let’s face it: work life can be tough and competitive sometimes. This has lead to a work culture in Australia where people can be hesitant to take the leave they need, just in case someone else nabs that upcoming promotion or the big project everyone has been anticipating. Other times, people are worried about being judged by workmates and their bosses for taking leave.

According to an Ipsos Global and Reuters survey, Australia ranks second in the world for workaholics, with only 47 percent of people taking all their allotted holidays.

Why leave and time out matters

But let’s be clear: it’s outdated and a tad macho to think that rest means weakness and the harder employees work, the more hardcore they are. In fact, the stats show just the opposite:

  • Happiness leads to a 12% increase in productivity, while unhappiness leads to a 10% decrease.
  • Resting: taking short afternoon naps, longer sleeping hours, time away from work, and longer, more frequent holidays, has been shown to improve productivity, job performance, and health. Ernst & Young conducted a study in 2006 where they found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation that their employees took, their year-end performance ratings increased by 8%.
  • Further, people who take more frequent holidays are less likely to leave their employer.

But having a great work-life balance doesn’t just affect one’s ability to produce quality work efficiently. It also has long term consequences. Low morale or motivation combined with exhaustion can see people becoming burnt out (i.e, unable to cope) and actually missing work out of illness rather than choice. At work, people with burnout find it hard to concentrate and lack creativity.

Companies like Netflix, Zynga, Groupson, Evernote, The Virigin Group, and more, have actually taken the importance of leave to brave new levels: giving their workers unlimited holidays.

Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group, where employees can take as many holidays as they need and no one keeps tabs, noted, “I’ve learned that when you treat employees like grown-ups, they act like grown-ups. When employees know they are trusted to take vacation when they need or want one, they’re more willing and excited to produce good work when they’re in the office.”

Six ways to build a pro-time out work culture

In the end, we’re happy when we do great work, rather than when we do more. Taking time off is essential for that, so here are six fool-hardy ways to foster a work culture where it isn’t just okay, but encouraged and even aspired to.

1) Raise awareness

Through staff room posters, email-outs, group discussions, or whatever works where you are – talk about the importance of rest to health and workplace performance, and the negative effects of overworking and no rest. Encourage everyone to look out for the signs of overwork, and to be supportive when they see it.

2) Provide support

There are a lot of reasons for overworking or for avoiding leave, and being supportive to a colleague who is doing that involves first and foremost, listening. Are they avoiding an uncomfortable home situation or another source of stress? Do they lack training in something that is leading them to spend more time than necessary on something? Is it because their self value is down and they believe that large amounts of work will bring them some cred?

If you’re in a position to solve some of these issues, do so – otherwise see if others can help. Then encourage them to take some leave, because they need and deserve it.

3) Reward quality and project completion

Recognition of employees’ contributions is vital to a positive work culture: employees respond with greater productivity when their work is valued, and motivated employees are even likely to go above and beyond to produce outstanding results.

But how can it be made clear that work quality, dependent on sufficient rest, is being rewarded rather than long hours? Ultimately, recognition isn’t a certificate on the wall, it’s communication. Effective recognition involves being positive, encouraging, clear and specific, and optionally, a small material reward.

In terms of valuing employees’ quality work: there could be a formal system based on stipulated accomplishments, and it could be informal: a simple, “Mate, you rocked that, I loved the way you involved our clients in the decision making process.” It can also be from management, or encouraged among workplace teams – horizontally.

4) Have a system in place

As Branson points out, exactly how leave is allocated or asked for will depend on the size of a workplace or company, if that company has busy seasons, and how easy it is to cover for someone when they are on leave. Whatever your system is, whether its unlimited leave, flexibility, or a set amount of leave – have procedures in place and make sure they are easy to access. Get rid of paperwork, bureaucracy, or other obstacles to people taking leave. You could even hold a meeting, or get together at the pub and talk out what would work best for everyone.

“In fact, encouraging staff to take some time off before a busy season can help them prepare for the stressful time to come. Alternatively, encouraging staff to take a vacation after a busy season can be a nice reward for all the hard work they’ve done,” Branson said.

Ensuring that a leave system works involves some planning ahead. Managers should have Plan Bs for all workers, should they need to suddenly take leave, and should facilitate planning for leave in advance as well.

5) Have management or the workplace leadership set the example

If the people everyone looks up to in the workplace are doing it, if the busiest, most productive people are doing it, then maybe it’s okay. On the other hand, if team leaders preach the importance of taking regular leave, but don’t do so themselves, it’s going to be hard to get rid of the prevailing mentality that taking leave is a weakness.

6) Take a look at your general workplace culture

Is your workplace set up like an assembly line, or is it a fun, positive place to be? Do employees feel like they can stand up and walk around for a bit, take a short coffee break to recharge, and hang up pictures of their favourite Aussie rock bands? – or do they feel like they’re practically in the army? If it’s the latter, or even close to it, it’s going to be hard to convince anyone that more leave is a good thing. However, if your workplace culture is one where people feel like they can breathe, meet, have a spontaneous brainstorm, do stretches in the corridor, and snack on carrot cake, a message about holidays and work-life balance will strike as more consistent.