‘Happy’ Holidays: the growing problem of workplace separation anxiety

Posted on: Monday, 21 October 2019 in Opinion Pieces .

‘Happy’ Holidays: the growing problem of workplace separation anxiety

The statutory right to holiday pay was introduced back in the 1930s, but nearly 100 years on it seems people are struggling, more than ever, to take the time off that they are entitled to. And for those that do, the pressure of an ‘always on’ work culture means their precious annual holiday is often little more than an ‘office away from the office’. The summer holidays may now be a distant memory but Joanne McAuley from Clarendon Executive says that with the Christmas break and a new year looming, there is no better time for companies to revisit their annual leave policies with a view to encouraging and sustaining a culture of engagement, productivity, and mental and physical wellbeing.

The benefits of a decent break are varied and numerous. Whether it’s an opportunity to take a breather from planning, analysing and thinking; spending quality time with family and friends; catching up on sleep or some other reason completely unique to you, taking time out to relax and unwind away from the daily stresses of the workplace is good for us.

The effects of working long hours without sufficient holidays can, on the other hand, be detrimental to job performance and, in some of the worst cases, cause costly or reputation-damaging mistakes. It can also place a strain on relationships with partners, friends and children, exacerbate ill health, long-term absenteeism and potential ‘burnout’, now a recognised medical condition by the World Health Organisation.

Holiday shy

Despite an increase in the minimum entitlement of annual leave from 20 days a year to 28 days in 2009, and the launch of a holiday pay campaign as part of the UK Government’s ‘Good Work Plan’, many are still not taking off what they are entitled to. In fact, a survey earlier this year by Yougov found that almost half of British workers don’t take their full annual leave.

So what’s going on? And what can organisations do to promote a healthier work/life balance and encourage employees to take all of their annual leave?

A rise in ‘work separation anxiety’ – where employees struggle to ever truly switch off from work even when away from the office - has been put down to the changing expectations placed on modern day working and in part triggered by technological advancements, including work laptops and smart phones facilitating an ‘always on’ work culture. It can also sometimes be a result of employees’ personal feelings of needing to be constantly working to be an asset to their employer.

Work separation anxiety can mean working evenings and weekends, and even doing work tasks during annual leave or when off sick. In some cases it can manifest in strained and stressed employees struggling on, without using earned annual leave or taking sick days.

Ironically a rise in the number of companies offering well-intentioned remote or flexible working policies could be making things worse, as the lines between work and leisure become increasingly blurred. Taking holidays can be a particular challenge for remote workers, for example, as they have no office to leave behind. Laptops and iphones make up the ‘offices’ of remote workers and these can be difficult to stay away from while on holiday. 

Even flexible holiday policies as offered by Virgin and Netflix, where staff can take unlimited holidays, often in reality mean staff end up taking less time off, not more, as they don’t want to appear uncommitted to their employers.

Recognising the signs

It’s unlikely that many employees suffering from Work Separation Anxiety would open up to colleagues about their struggles, for the same reason they’re overworking in the first place. They may worry they’ll be seen as weak or that their managers will lose respect for them.

As such, it’s important that line managers are trained to recognise signs and symptoms of overworking in colleagues and be able to offer support when required. Common signs of work separation anxiety include the failure to delegate tasks, cancelling annual leave or working while on leave, insisting on coming into work when unwell, plus persistently working from home outside work hours.

Physical signs to watch out for include employees experiencing heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, tiredness and dizziness. You might also notice behavioural changes such as low moods, short-temperedness or unexplained unproductiveness. 

Tackling the problem

Responsibility for work life balance and taking annual leave lies with both the employee and employer, but there is an onus on organisations to encourage staff to achieve that balance. Some ways to offer support include:

  1. Making your policy on annual leave clear, stressing the importance of staff taking what they are entitled to
  2. Leading by example. A culture of overworking is very contagious therefore it’s crucial that a positive work life balance is modelled from the top so that employees don’t see overworking as a prerequisite of success within the organisation. Are those in leadership positions taking their holidays, regularly leaving on time – obviously there will be times when this is not possible for those at a certain level of seniority – and taking lunch breaks?
  3. Identifying and implementing training courses that address overworking, including training for line managers in how to spot the symptoms.
  4. Considering emotional literacy training for staff to help them recognise the signs of emotional distress in themselves and others
  5. Talking openly with employees and regularly reminding them of the company’s wellbeing benefits
  6. Regularly reviewing employee workplace habits, getting a check on how they feel about their workloads

In summary, workplace separation anxiety and ‘overworking’ are issues that should to be dealt with at the most senior level within any organisation. They should be reviewed in the round and form part and parcel of any policies and procedures that are currently in place, signalling to employees that mental and physical health is something that their employer takes seriously and can support them with.

Joanne McAuley

Joanne McAuley

Joanne McAuley is a Partner at Clarendon Executive, specialists in executive search, performance and the provision of interim management in Northern Ireland. With over 20 years’ experience in recruiting at the highest level, Joanne has an exceptional track record in senior and board appointments within the public, private and third sectors.

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