The University of Wisconsin released a statement Feb. 9 encouraging employees to take time off for well-being.

The statement said employees were deferring time off because the pandemic prevented them from traveling, spending time with family and friends, or getting away from managing pandemic-related issues. UW Chief Human Resources Officer Mark Walters said employees are also busy triaging issues caused by the pandemic to help keep the campus safe.

“People who couldn’t go on those traditional vacations, leaving somewhere out of the state or wherever it might be, they did not utilize their vacation hours,” Walters said. “Realizing that back in the spring of 2020, we allowed people to carry through their vacation carryover from years past, and so now we have folks who have quite a bit of balance.” 

The extended deadline to use personal holiday hours or vacation carryover across multiple fiscal and calendar years was a one-time exception provided in the COVID-19 Pandemic Leave Policy.

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Under the policy, employees are still able to carry over new vacation allocation in the current 2021 fiscal year, Walters said. Carryover from the past years of 2019 and 2020 will expire June 30 for employees on the fiscal year cycle.

“We’re not granting another extension for this July, and that’s why I want to make sure people understand what balances they have,” Walters said.

UW is primarily encouraging employees to take time off because they need time to unplug for their well-being, Walters said.

Postdoctoral scholar Karen Smith said the pandemic led to more people social distancing, working from home and suffering from feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness refers to perceiving yourself to lack high-quality social relationships, and it is centered around the perception of being socially isolated rather than not having people around you, Smith said. People can therefore feel lonely even if they are surrounded by friends and family.

“This suggestion to take time off could allow people the time to devote to maintaining their relationships,” Smith said. “Whether it be in person with people or over the phone and Zoom, whatever they have access to, it could be very helpful in trying to alleviate feelings of loneliness, because it often is one of those things that drops lower on the priority list when we’re working and going through our normal workday.”

Smith said perceived social isolation is dependent on the individual level. Some recent research found increases of loneliness during the pandemic while others have found no change in reported loneliness.

Stress is also dependent on the individual level, but studies consistently report people are experiencing increased levels of stress, Smith said.

“There’s no ‘one coping strategy cures all’ when it comes to stress, because what we perceive as stressful differs across individuals,” Smith said. “Similarly, how we can manage that stress differs across individuals.”

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Smith said two of the key factors which shift whether or not a person perceives an event as stressful are lack of control and predictability. On the population level, shifting these factors was found to be an effective strategy for managing stress.

Smith said many people associated the pandemic with unpredictability and feeling a lack of control, which can make it very stressful.

“Even in these types of situations where there is not a way to exert control over the stressor itself, research has found for those types of stressors that it can be helpful to shift small things in your life to help exert control,” Smith said.

Smith said a series of studies manipulated whether or not an individual was able to oversee the decoration of their room within a nursing home facility, a move which can be an uncontrollable and stressful change in an individual’s life. The studies found individuals who were provided with the small aspect of control in decorating reported less stress.

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In the context of the pandemic, individuals can also do small things like implementing a regular routine to give themselves some sense of control over what is happening, Smith said.

“It can feel strange to say, ‘Well, I’m just going to take a week off and not go anywhere,’” Smith said. “Most of us are not used to doing that kind of vacation, but it is important to give yourself that time where you can devote it to whatever you need to do to help cope with the stressfulness of the pandemic and to deal with any feelings of isolation.”