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Employee Benefits

Encouraging Paid Time Off: A Key to Avoiding Burnout and Retaining Talent

August 10, 2023

With myriad reports showing a correlation between lack of vacation and job burnout, decreased productivity, and even increased health risks, it’s not surprising that companies of all sizes and industries offer paid time off as a benefit.

Yet an overwhelming number of employees fail to use their allotted PTO.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 92% of private industry workers in businesses with more than 500 employees have paid vacation leave. Yet according to Zippia, 55% of Americans don’t use all of their paid time off.


Employees cite negative feelings about taking time off work, including:

  • Management looks down on workers taking time off;
  • Employees are worried about layoffs and feel they need to work to show their value;
  • They work on understaffed teams;
  • Upon returning from PTO, employees need to work longer hours to catch up.

In fact, 24% of respondents to a Monster poll on employee sentiment about taking time off revealed they would rather quit than take PTO due to the feeling of increased anxiety or stress after returning to work from time off.

Encouraging Employee PTO Use

Ultimately, the success of your PTO comes down to company culture and how accessible, acceptable and permissible your company makes it to use that PTO.

Creating a culture that encourages using PTO (either directly or indirectly) requires a concerted effort from all levels of leadership, from the CEO to managers to administrators.

1. Lead by Example

Model taking time off (and truly taking that time off).

Today’s digital world has brought about dramatic changes in how and where people work. Yes, remote and hybrid work schedules are now possible thanks to Wifi, hotspots, cell phones and instant connectivity to anyone and everyone. But there’s another side to that coin.

Leaders at your organization set the tone for everything. Taking PTO and setting up an out-of-office message, yet continuing to respond to emails, messages and texts about work, send your employees a silent message: They are expected to continue working even when they are taking time off.

Leaders, from CEOs to office managers to team leaders, should start disconnecting from work when taking PTO.

2. Discuss PTO Openly

This doesn’t mean employees need to share how they will spend their paid time off, but companies should regularly remind employees to use their PTO, whether it’s for vacation, volunteer work or a sick day. If a manager sees an employee continuing to work while sick, remind the employee it’s okay to use PTO or the appropriate policy in order to fully recover.

Consider incorporating PTO discussions into one-on-one meetings, discussing the value of time off to avoid burnout. If you notice or hear from an employee that they are burnt out, encourage them to use PTO.

Be careful not to interrogate about reasons for PTO in these discussions. Employees use PTO for a variety of reasons (e.g., kids staying home from school, doctor appointments, car trouble and personal time). Unless your PTO structure has specific categories, avoid grilling employees about why they’re using PTO. A manager operating within a PTO bank policy may simply be conversational when asking, “Why are you taking PTO?” But an employee may interpret that as a validity test for their PTO—worrying that the request may be rejected if they give the “wrong” answer. Approving time off before asking such questions may help dissuade such feelings. As a rule, employees shouldn’t feel like they need to justify their PTO as long as they’re complying with the policy.

3. Manage Workload & Ensure Coverage

Many employees don’t use their allotted PTO because of the stress of managing their workload upon their return. Though not all PTO is planned for (sick days, family emergencies, etc.), there is a certain amount of planning that can be done to mitigate the stress of coming back to a mountain of work.

  • Ensure employees are communicating with managers about planned time off.
  • Communicate team PTO calendars so projects and tasks can be completed on time or shifted to other individuals.
  • Establish back-ups of each team member to cover needs while someone is out.
  • Regularly check in with employees to ensure they aren’t buried in work beyond their means (regardless of PTO).

4. Consider Rollover Policies Carefully

Some companies may consider a “use-it or lose-it” PTO policy, in which any vacation days not used are considered forfeit. Others may allow only a certain number of days to be rolled over into the next year’s schedule. Both methods encourage employees to use their full amount of paid time off.

5. Determine a PTO Policy that Works for Your Employees

Understanding the PTO policies in place is instrumental in helping encourage your employees to take time off. There are many different approaches to paid time off. Some companies may have separate policies for sick days, personal days, volunteer days or vacation days. Others may have a bucket of personal days and a different policy for sick days. Still others may have unlimited, open-vacation, flexible or self-managed PTO, in which there is a bottomless PTO bank. It’s also imperative to consider whether PTO is offered upfront, accrued or tiered.

If your PTO policy isn’t structured in a way that works for your employees, they may find themselves leaving PTO on the table. For example, if an employee decides they are hitting a wall and need a mental health day, but they are out of sick days and don’t think their bank of vacation time works for a mental health day, they may decide to continue working, therefore not taking the break they need. Regardless of your policy approach, be sure you clearly communicate PTO expectations with employees.

Employees’ engagement and sense of value are directly related. Burnout is a very real concern for employers and employees alike. Make sure your company culture supports PTO so you can keep your employees healthy, engaged and productive.

The above information does not constitute advice. Always contact your employee benefits broker or trusted advisor for insurance-related questions.

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