R&R launches new initiative to get U.S.-based nonprofits to shut down for a week

Through Breakweek, 10 organizations will get advice — and a $5,000 grant — to give all employees time off together after a trying few months of crisis

In the second half of 2020, the leadership of the Jewish teen movement BBYO was concerned about employee burnout, especially after the pandemic hit, so the nonprofit shut down completely, giving all its staff the same week off — with pay.

“It means that nobody is emailing you,” Jill Hulnick, BBYO’s former chief impact officer, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Nobody is calling. There’s no expectation of you getting back to anybody. There are no urgent requests.”

The response from staff was overwhelming. “For once, it finally felt like they took a vacation,” she said. Soon, leadership added a second yearly mandatory break week, which remained after Hulnick left the organization in June 2023.

According to a 2023 Pew Research Study, around half of Americans with paid time off don’t use it all, often because they worry about work piling up. Meanwhile, employee burnout is on the rise globally. To counter this and prioritize mental health, companies like Nike, Bumble and Mozilla have instituted break weeks similar to BBYO’s.

To encourage more Jewish nonprofits to embrace this practice, R&R: The Rest of Our Lives, which advocates for and assists organizations with research-based rest interventions, is launching Breakweek, a new initiative offering 10 U.S.-based organizations the opportunity to fully shut down for one week between August 2024 and February 2025 with the expectation that it will be in addition to regular vacation time given. The program will provide implementation guides, coaching support, customized evaluation tools, peer-to-peer engagement and a $5,000 grant to the participating companies, R&R said.

“We know that there are times of year where it’s not realistic for organizations to shut down, and we wouldn’t want them to do so during those times,” Josh Feldman, R&R’s CEO, told eJP. “The idea is…for them to choose when the right part of the yearly work cycle would be correct to do this kind of intervention.”

The $5,000 offered to companies is not going to cover the full financial cost of shutting down for a week for many companies, Rachel Zieleniec, R&R’s chief program officer, told eJP, but it will pay off in the long run. 

“There’s an enormous cost to your employee’s turnover [if you don’t care for your employee’s rest needs],” Feldman said. “There’s an enormous cost to your employees not showing up to work because of exhaustion.” According to Circadian, a workforce solutions company, hourly worker absenteeism costs companies around $3,600 per year and salaried worker absenteeism costs $2,660.

There is a “myth of productivity,” Feldman said, which says that “people with butts in seats are going to get the most and best work done.” Employers believe that workers simply being present and clocked in leads to higher output, but in reality, “People get their best results when they’re well rested, emotionally regulated, being cared for.”

Offering a break week “democratizes rest,” Feldman said, so it’s not just higher-ups who are able to care for themselves, but hourly workers getting paid to rest. “All boats rise when you do that, especially people experiencing a double burden in their lives. That might be an identity-based double burden, across race, gender, across disability.”

The goal of the initiative is not to simply offer employees a single week off, but to inspire institutional changes so the company budgets for rest-based interventions.

Jewish nonprofits are in a moment of “great crisis” after Oct. 7, Feldman said. He hopes nonprofits will be proactive, “So that three years from now, unfortunately, when there’s some other crisis that affects the sector, the organizations have built a culture that’s resilient, that’s equitable, [so] the most vulnerable workers that are working within their system are supported.”

A review panel will choose participating organizations based on if they already have policies and practices that value the well-being of their staff. The organizations chosen will be “very aware of the feeling and morale of their team,” Zieleniec said. “And they also are very aware that something like Breakweek is a way to almost reset the baseline for a minute… They’re ready to think about that as ROI [Return on Investment].”

While the implementation guide and coaching will help organizations make the break the most beneficial to workers and help workers think about how to make the time the most useful, the peer-to-peer support will bring together similarly minded organizations to share tips and experiences. There will be emphasis on how employees reenter the workplace after the week, so they aren’t simply thrown back in to become overwhelmed again. 

The journey is a learning process, and nonprofits will evaluate not just how the intervention worked for the company as a whole, but for employees across the board. A certain week off may be great for 70% of employees, but not for 30%.

R&R is funded by the Jewish Federations of North America, the Righteous Persons Foundation, Rise Up and the Jim Joseph Foundation. Feldman said he is grateful for the support they’ve received, he said, “and we think this is a moment when more is needed.” 

He added: “We’re encouraging philanthropists to double down on these efforts, and we think if we do, the future is incredibly bright, but if we don’t there’s going to be a real downside.”

Nonprofit employees work harder and longer than employees in other industries, often for a fraction of the pay, Hulnick, now an R&R board member, said. “A lot of folks in the Jewish community work [at nonprofits] because it’s a passion project. It’s a part of who they are. But it is draining… We spend our lives giving back to others, and we need to ensure that we’re supporting our talent, so that they’re able to support themselves as well.”