Paid time off (PTO) might look like summer beach vacations, family ski trips or perhaps an international destination you’ve been planning for years to check off your bucket list. Geographic destinations aside, PTO is supposed to be time to recharge, disconnect and forget about the everyday stressors you’ve likely been experiencing at work and home. However, many human resources (HR) and development leaders have shifted PTO from being a respite to a necessity — and one that creates even further employee stress.

Why take PTO at the risk of flight cancellations or a breakthrough infection? Plus, there will be a pile of work waiting for you when you get back anyway. The thought of that pile of work alone often keeps people from taking time off or using it to their fullest advantage.

The self-denial of PTO grew during the pandemic. One survey of over 2,000 full-time U.S. employees revealed a major shift in PTO this past year. Specifically:

  • 56% had unused PTO by the end of 2020, attributable to COVID-19.
  • 43% worked or planned to do so on their vacation.
  • 59% checked or planned to check work email on vacation.
  • 56% said they would not use their PTO in 2020, due to COVID-19.

Despite this, too many HR and training and development leaders not only remain focused on PTO to retain their people and boost employee well-being, they’re going further to make big and creative changes to the traditional PTO format.

CreativeX, an international software developer, created “Elevate Fridays.” Employees are not to engage in any “day-to-day” work. Instead, they’re encouraged to spend the day “doing anything that helps them create mind space to accomplish really impactful work,” CEO Anastasia Leng told Forbes. Activities have involved everything from training for a marathon to talking to someone whose career is more advanced to simply sitting and thinking. The 12-week trial has been so successful, CreativeX extended Elevate Fridays, at least temporarily.

When Microsoft Japan made the switch to a four-day workweek in 2019, productivity reportedly increased by 40%. While Elevate Fridays and a four-day workweek are certainly steps in the right direction, they’re unlikely to lead to lasting change or prevent more stress, anxiety and mental health issues.

On any given day, mindsets change, just like physical health fluctuates. Some days people are productive, and the next, their focus is suddenly gone. In the beginning of the pandemic, there was an increase in these symptoms among employees, it was easy to blame it on the lockdowns, social distancing and working from home — when work life and home life became so obviously enmeshed for so many people.

Even before the pandemic, the struggle to keep work and home separate was a challenge at best. At worst, it turned out to be a no-sum and illogical game. Because underneath, we are who we are, wherever we are. The stress and anxiety that is caused by one part of our life can easily affect every other part of our lives. The good news is that the symptoms that indicate a fraying of our mental wellbeing can be mitigated or even avoided when we consider that any single aspect of our life affects at least one other part of our life.

The Recipe for Well-being Starts with These 9 Strategies

To achieve long-term mental health, and to create a workforce that has the grit and resilience to bounce back from life’s abrupt surprises, you need to think critically about how your company is approaching employee well-being. Success requires a holistic strategy that engages the entire workforce, not only those who are experiencing or reporting symptoms of stress, burnout and other types of mental illness.

Consider these nine strategies as a blueprint toward that goal.

  1. Seek out clinical and evidence-based programs. There’s no shortage of mental health platforms to choose from, but only a select few have the research and experts to back up their methods.
  2. Train your leaders to recognize and intervene with staff before it’s too late. The adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is absolutely a good guidepost here.
  3. Offer choices and clear direction that navigate employees to resources for support when necessary.
  4. Work to remove the stigma around mental health, so it’s not something for employees to be ashamed of. Seek to develop a culture that encourages the discussion of mental health and seeks to make mental well-being a goal.
  5. Ensure mental health tools, programs and resources are readily accessible for all your employees, and that your platform is easy to access on the go.
  6. Diversify your programs — consider a multifaceted approach. Make your offerings as diverse as your people.
  7. Bring mental well-being resources front and center, to show your company cares and employees can access resources as they need them.
  8. Provide tools that enable all employees to take control of their health and make choices that ultimately lead to lasting change.
  9. Track results, participation and progress so you can adjust your wellness strategies and communication to make them more effective.

Ultimately, we need to think beyond work-life balance. Only when organizations accept that the two overlap on many levels can they begin to improve mental health. That’s why offering more PTO is a Band-Aid, a jumping-off point, rather than a fix that prevents the effects of poor mental health from affecting employees.

Envision an inclusive environment, one that embraces employee mental health and addresses the emotional and mental day-to-day hurdles. Embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly, and consider taking the next steps toward acknowledging, encouraging, celebrating and supporting greater mental well-being for all your people.