AUSTIN (KXAN) — By all accounts, University of Texas Austin Professor Kasey Claborn considers herself a Type A worker. As a research scientist and clinical psychologist at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, productivity has always been at the forefront of her managerial approach.

Then, the pandemic hit. As the emotional toll of the pandemic mixed with the heaviness of her professional work, she noticed a severe dip in morale among her team.

“My team is very cohesive. They communicate all the time and are very friendly. And our calls on Zoom, they were very quiet,” she said. “And that’s very abnormal. And so I think for us — we had never, we didn’t have a break during the pandemic. We kind of pushed it 110% for the last year and a half, and I really just recognized that, after everything that we’ve accomplished and overcome over the last year, it’s time to take a break.”

This week, Claborn’s entire team will be taking time off in recognition of “Rest Week,” a growing national health initiative. This week is also recognized as National Mental Illness Awareness Week, so the timing could not be more poignant, she added.

“There have been times over the last six, eight months where I personally have struggled and needed to take a mental health break. And so being able to model that for my team was very important.”

kasey claborn, ut austin professor

And Claborn’s team isn’t alone in this endeavor. Earlier this summer, Nike announced its office employees were taking a week off to mentally destress.

“This past year has been rough — we’re all human! And living through a traumatic event! But I’m hopeful that the empathy and grace we continue to show our teammates will have a positive impact on the culture of work moving forward,” Matt Marrazzo, Nike’s senior manager of global marketing science, said in a LinkedIn post. “It’s not just a ‘week off’ for the team… it’s an acknowledgment that we can prioritize mental health and still get work done.”

A March 2021 study conducted by Indeed found that 52% of respondents reported feeling burnout, a 9% increase over a previous Indeed survey. Of those surveyed, 57% said they felt burnout had substantially increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite some employers’ inclinations to push through burnout, research conducted by the World Health Organization found approximately 264 million people struggle with depression globally. From a productivity standpoint, untreated depression and anxiety disorders translate to $1 trillion in lost productivity each year on the global economy scale.

“I’m trying to change my leadership style into incorporating more values, such as compassion, such as authenticity and being transparent when I’m struggling,” Claborn said. “There have been times over the last six, eight months where I personally have struggled and needed to take a mental health break. And so being able to model that for my team was very important.”

Karen Ranus, director of workplace programming for NAMI Central Texas, said her team will also be off this week. As an organization centered around mental health resources, she said it was important for them to be a model that other Austin businesses could follow.

“It is a fairly new concept, right? And I think really, the pandemic is what has made us all far more aware of our mental health and how it’s impacting us, especially in workplaces,” she said. “My hope is that it really does become part of our culture, and recognizing that people need that opportunity to regroup and recharge.”

But Ranus stressed that not every organization can afford to take an entire week off. Especially with smaller, independently owned businesses, she said the goals they can is aiming for a culture shift in how mental health is discussed and supported among employees.

She said companies need to realign mental health with employees’ physical health, and becoming more proactive in encouraging mental health days off the way companies offer sick days. She also said employers can limit their business-related emails and questions to office hours to help support work-life balance.

“As we start looking at diversity and equity and inclusion [initiatives], we need to understand that mental health becomes part of that. We need to be valuing that and recognizing that not all employees sometimes have access to the same level of opportunities to rest and take that time off,” Ranus said. “And companies need to be looking at policies like that as ‘are we including everyone, as we look at the need for rest and play?‘”