When the career website Glassdoor surveyed American workers in 2017, they found the average employee had only taken 54 percent of their paid time off (PTO) in the past year. That figure has been consistent for about the past 3–5 years, according to their research. Another Glassdoor survey found that 2 out of 3 employees reported that they still did work, even when they were technically on vacation. Thanks to innovations like smart phones, multichannel communications, and the growing number of productivity apps, it’s simply harder to unplug.
The health benefits of taking time off are amply documented by research, and include stress reduction, improved heart health and better sleep, as well as greater productivity. That’s why smart employers not only provide PTO, but are now implementing more flexible, generous policies, while encouraging their staffers to take full advantage of their time off.
Even so, a 2018 report by the U.S. Travel Association found that 52% of Americans hadn’t used all their PTO by the end of the year. So what’s behind employees’ reluctance to take—or properly enjoy—vacation time?
“The pressure of work for many people, how busy they are, and how they feel overwhelmed,” causes some employees to forego PTO and stay at the office, according to Henry Goldbeck, a Certified Personnel Consultant, who has more than 30 years of human resources and recruiting experience.
Some employees don’t want to burden their coworkers by being absent, while others dread the pileup of work that follows a week or two off. Some workers may think no one else can possibly fill in for them—or they may fear the discovery that someone else can. Very often, people worry about looking less than dedicated to their job and fear missing out on promotions, raises, or performance-based incentives.
There are systemic factors at work, too. The U.S. is one of the few developed nations that doesn’t require employers to provide paid time off. In fact, a quarter of private-sector employees in the U.S. receive zero PTO—and among those that do, the average number of days off is far below that of workers in Europe.
[Can time away from work really help your productivity? Work is More than Just Showing Up]
Working Toward More Flexible PTO Practices
The Society for Human Research Management’s 2017 Employee Benefits: Remaining Competitive in a Challenging Marketplace report found that over the course of the previous year, one-third of companies had increased their benefit offerings, including paid time off. SHRM also found that more employers are offering “floating” holidays and time off, as well as the freedom to “trade” traditional holidays for alternate days off.
PTO innovation is a growing trend—and for Durham, NC–based serial entrepreneur Ryan Vet, the reason is obvious: “Technology has created a world where employees can be their own boss [and] control their schedule.” Attracting top talent means competing with that flexibility.
According to Vet, this is especially true for his fellow millennials, many of whom, he says “will take a lower salary for a company that allows flexibility and has a purpose or mission that we like.”
There’s also the influence of social media, where people tend to emphasize the positive perks of their jobs, along with some of the highly publicized trends credited to big tech and start-up culture—such as PTO “banks” that allow employees to take time off without labelling it as vacation, personal, or sick days. Some companies, such as Netflix and at Richard Branson's Virgin Group, have even implemented unlimited PTO.
[Looking for more innovative practices? Read How PTO Donation Pools Work]
Vet is the founder and CEO of Boon, a startup that connects licensed medical and dental professionals with practices that need short-term staffing. At Boon, he’s pioneering a new vacation strategy which he calls “DND days” (meaning, Do Not Disturb). Boon employees get unlimited PTO, as well as the flexibility to work remotely on most days. But they also get twelve DND days of their choosing, where they are forbidden from connecting to work by any method (email, text, Slack, or phone). The amount of DND time off increases with seniority.
Vet strives to encourage healthy use of time off “by rewarding those who recharge their batteries.” As he explains it: “You want to influence the culture, not change a policy.” He notes that it’s also important for company leaders to model behavior by making sure to take time off themselves.
Goldbeck thinks the solution requires two changes, one of culture and one of organization. “Companies should create the expectation that employees take their full vacation time and set a planning process in place to support it,” he told The FruitGuys Magazine. For example, rather than allowing PTO days to roll over indefinitely, Goldbeck suggests letting just one-third of them carry over, to encourage time away while maintaining some flexibility.
Vacation 101: Training Managers to Manage PTO
It takes some managerial effort to absorb the absence of an employee, especially on a small team—but it’s important and healthy for an organization to be able to do so, Goldbeck explains. Establishing clear protocols, checklists, and handoff procedures will make your organization more resilient and better prepared to handle less predictable absences, like illness or staff turnover, as well as parental or family leave.
[Want a deeper dive? Read Ways to Manage Vacation Calendars to Reduce Conflicts]
“If a manager is in fear of his/her staff going on vacation, you’ve got a bigger problem,” Goldbeck says. “That manager may need training to organize their department to allow vacations without adding to everyone’s stress.” He suggests, for example, that managers could ask employees to request their yearly vacation time by January 31, so they can make sure absences don't bunch up.
Goldbeck emphasizes that the benefits of a healthy and well-organized vacation culture are manifold. After all, who would you rather work for: A manager who boasts about the team pulling long hours, working weekends, and never logging off? Or the one who’s organized with backup plans and cross-training, so when someone’s on vacation, everything is in good shape?
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.