The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic have given new weight to the end-of-year break, as the line between work and home has blurred more than ever for many workers. Some companies are trying to encourage their employees to disconnect from their jobs more than usual this year, as holiday routines and connections have been upended for many.

Jim Mathis runs the small ad agency, Adwerx, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He’d normally have a full calendar during the holidays: the company party, visits to extended family and planning for a new year staff retreat.

But this is 2020.

“There’s just this lingering cloud over everyone that is just getting hard on folks,” he said.

He’s encouraged his seven employees to take extra time off this week and next – they have unlimited vacation.

“Definitely recharge your batteries,” he said. “We all need to do that. And this year, that’s been stressful, we probably need it more than normal.”

Sheila Ryan is the Chief People Officer at Clear Capital appraisal services in Truckee, California. During this darker-than-usual end of the year, she’s trained managers to identify potential signs of burnout among their 600 employees.

“You look for changes in behavior – were they really participatory and vocal in your meetings and now they’re being more quiet?” she said. “Are they getting more slouchy and turning their camera off a lot more?”

If so, managers at her company have been reminding staff of mental health resources like the Employee Assistance Program and encouraging staff to take time off. Ryan said more people at her company have taken vacation days this holiday season than usual.

Breaks are important for cognitive function, said David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, which applies neuroscience to work.

“With the brain you need to literally let networks rest for a while for them to regenerate and come back energized,” he said.

The brain gets tired out by repetitive stress, like constantly worrying about a pandemic, or thinking about work at all hours of the day, he said.

“One thing we know about fitness is you don’t do three hours of repetition on the same muscle without stopping,” he said.

But even with time off, pulling our brains out of work is easier said than done these days, said Jaclyn Jensen, who teaches organizational psychology at DePaul University.

Because millions of workers have now combined their home with their workplace, “your mind is always at work, even if you are not actually sitting in front of your computer working,” she said.

Finding a new routine during time off can help rebuild those boundaries, she said: spending time outside, reading or scheduling those things you don’t have time for during a busy work week. And by all means, stay away from email.

“Several days ago, in anticipation of the holiday I did take my email off of my phone, and it is freeing,” she said.

So much so, she might even leave it that way after the holidays are over.

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