How can organisations take a holiday?


October 3rd, 2016

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shutterstock_404868334For those of us who holidayed in August, our break may seem like a distant memory now the weather is chillier and the leaves are starting to turn. But our bodies may still be benefiting – a recent study (1) of healthy adult women on a 6-day holiday at a meditation retreat compared blood samples and well-being self-assessments of two groups, those who just relaxed and those who did meditation and yoga. Immediately after the holiday the blood samples from both groups showed significant changes, with improved regulation of the stress response and immune function – it sounds incredible that 6 days of relaxing can fundamentally change the hormones in our body but this study shows it can. A month later both groups of participants were still reporting less stress and fewer depressive symptoms, although not surprisingly 10 months later it was only the meditation group who were still benefiting.

This study joins a growing body of work that demonstrates the physical and psychological benefits of taking proper breaks from work. But what about organisations? They can’t go on holiday – even organisations that shut down between Christmas and New Year are still functioning, albeit at a much reduced level, and don’t turn the phones and emails off as we (should) do when we’re on holiday.

Without the option of literally going on holiday, how can organisations metaphorically do so? How can leaders build a culture that generates the slowing down, proper conversations, and different perspectives that we as individuals get out of a holiday?

Such outcomes are a key part of organisational resilience: “how organisations continually achieve desirable outcomes amidst adversity, strain, and significant barriers to adaptation and development” (2) or “a firm’s ability to effectively absorb, develop situation-specific responses to, and ultimately engage in transformative activities to capitalize on disruptive surprises that potentially threaten organization survival” (3).

If you read around the topic of organisational resilience, as I have been doing, you find that different authors have different views on the processes and capabilities needed, with some common themes and threads. Here is a selection of some recent perspectives.

Sutcliffe and Vogus (2003) focus on:

  • processes that enhance competence and growth, in particular “the ability to learn and to learn from mistakes”;
  • processes that quickly process feedback and flexibly reconfiguring knowledge and resources to respond to that feedback (“such as product innovation, strategic decision-making and alliances”);
  • the capability to restore efficacy, which depends on practices that build conceptual slack, ad hoc problem solving networks, fluid decision structures, social capital, and rich media communication systems.

Lengnick-Hall, Beck and Legnick Hall (2010) focus on a blend of organizational capabilities with:

  • a cognitive dimension (e.g. expertise, opportunism, decisiveness despite uncertainty, questioning assumptions);
  • a behavioural dimension (e.g. developing unconventional responses, combining originality and initiative, making investments before they’re needed);
  • a contextual dimension (e.g. developing interpersonal connections, sharing information and knowledge widely, sharing power and accountability).

Denhardt and Denhardt (2010) highlight important characteristics of resilient organisations.

  • They are redundant, having excess capacity so if one part fails the organisation as a whole survives;
  • They are robust, promoting the mental and psychological health of their employees;
  • They are flexible, ready and willing to try new approaches;
  • Their infrastructure is reliable, providing accurate data, communication and resource management;
  • They foster a culture of trust and respect so employees can take risks and experiment, learn from failures, cooperate, and collaborate;
  • They have the capacity to ‘act in the moment’ – through adaptability, imagination, ingenuity, spontaneity, creativity, rapidly shifting networks, and highly improvised behaviour.

So the common themes and threads suggest that if leaders want to create a metaphorical holiday for their organisations, the culture needs to be one of flexibility, adaptability, risk taking, learning from mistakes, collaboration, knowledge sharing and trust.

This may seem a bit ‘touchy-feely’, but it’s not. Gittell et al (2006) studied US airline companies in the aftermath of September 11. They found that layoffs after the crisis were strongly influenced by a lack of a viable business model and a lack of financial reserves before the crisis. But importantly a viable business model depended on relational reserves (positive social capital between employees) that were developed before the crisis and preserved through it.

So when you are in the crunch period before a holiday, trying to get things done before you log off, remember the real and long lasting benefits you will get from the break. And when you are working to influence your organisation’s culture, remember that the time you invest in non-urgent activities (such as connecting with people, properly investigating mistakes, and questioning assumptions), will also generate long lasting benefits that will prepare your organisation for the inevitable shocks it will face in the future.


  1. Epel, E. S., Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Lum, P. Y., Beckmann, N. D., … & Tanzi, R. E. (2016). Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry, 6(8), e880.
  2. Sutcliffe, K. M., & Vogus, T. J. (2003). Organizing for resilience. Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, 94, 110.
  3. Lengnick-Hall, C. A., Beck, T. E., & Lengnick-Hall, M. L. (2011). Developing a capacity for organizational resilience through strategic human resource management. Human Resource Management Review, 21(3), 243-255.
  4. Gittell, J. H., Cameron, K., Lim, S., & Rivas, V. (2006). Relationships, layoffs, and organizational resilience airline industry responses to September 11. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 42(3), 300-329.
  5. Denhardt, J. & Denhardt, R. (2010). Building organizational resilience and adaptive management. Handbook of adult resilience, 333-349.