This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.
The pandemic has caused one of the biggest re-evaluations of work/life balance since the introduction of the weekend. Prince Harry was just the latest to stress the importance of time off earlier this month when he advised employers to give their staff time to work on their inner selves to help alleviate the effects of burnout and stress.
It was this sentiment that inspired Spotify to introduce a ‘wellness week’ for its employees. Taking place during the first week of November it allowed all employees to take five days off as paid leave, effectively shutting its offices for five days.
Spotify chief HR officer Katarina Berg tells Raconteur that the aim of the week was to give its staff a “chance to recharge and focus on themselves”. The company had been giving people small reminders to look after themselves and their wellbeing during the pandemic, but decided that having a week where everybody logs off would be “really powerful”.
Staff were instructed to use the time however they wished, whether that was spending time with family, getting out in nature or simply relaxing. “It was a chance to do whatever brings you joy,” Berg says.
While giving everyone a week off might seem like a simple idea, there were logistical challenges involved. Contingency planning was required to account for any business-critical events that may have occurred, while users of its music-streaming platform were warned that playlist updates would be minimal and it would take longer for support to reply.
There were also some people in the business who still had to work. Members of its crisis management team needed to be on call during the week, while some of the sustainability team were in Glasgow at the start of November for the COP26 environment conference. These individuals were offered a separate week off later in the year.
Berg admits it would have been ideal if everyone in the company could have had the whole week off but believes initiatives such as this can still work even if they don’t work perfectly in practice
“Most of the staff that were working were still able to relax because there were no emergencies,” she says. “Obviously it would have been great if everybody could take the same week off, but that isn’t always doable.
“That is just the nature of business for many companies, but it shouldn’t be seen as a blocker.”
The business benefits of shared time off
Giving a whole company a week off appears fraught with issues, particularly if something goes wrong while people are away. The easier option would have been to tack an extra five days onto everyone’s annual leave to use when they saw fit.
But Berg believes giving everyone the same week of leave brought additional benefits. By making it a company-wide policy, it meant that staff didn’t receive unexpected calls from people still working or come back to an overflowing email inbox and to-do list.
This, she suggests, was the best way to help those who might have suffered from stress or burnout due to the intense nature of work and life during a pandemic.
It also meant the wellness week had a more powerful impact, according to Berg, who claims there was a noticeable improvement in motivation across the company following the shared time off.
She says: “We hoped people would be happy but I don’t think we anticipated how helpful it would be for people to recharge, and how proud and engaged they would be when they got back.”
The success of the wellness week and the positive feedback the company received has meant there is potential for it to become a permanent benefit, although how this might work in practice is still being discussed internally.
“Judging from the feedback we got, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have another one,” Berg says.
How to introduce your own wellness week
Berg has some words of advice for any other companies looking to introduce their own wellness week. The first being that it should be a full week.
“Don’t just do a wellness day,” she warns. “Because if you’re trying to make sure that people really recharge, a day is not enough.”
It’s also important to find a week that’s relatively clear for the majority of the business and to notify people well in advance of the date. For example, it’s not a good idea to enforce a week off in the build-up to an important client pitch because people will either still work or worry about the workload when they get back.
Finding a suitable time was particularly challenging at Spotify because it has 49 offices operating across 29 countries. “For us, it made sense to have it at a time when the majority of our colleagues were going into winter, when the weather is cold and the days are getting shorter,” she says, but admits this will not be the same at every company.
Crucially, this needs to be a top-down initiative. The leadership team must set the example on really taking the week off so that others follow suit.
“It starts at the top, so if the CEO participates properly by switching off their email and not making calls during the week, people will understand they are allowed to do the same,” Berg says. “You have to role model it, you can’t just say that everybody’s off while management continues to ping and send messages.”
Ultimately it comes down to trust. She adds: “You don’t have to over-engineer it, you just have to trust your people.”
For any business looking to support their staff after the challenging circumstances of the past two years, a wellness week may be an effective way to let everyone recharge.