More Than Ever, Leaders Need to Bring PTO Policy to Life. Here’s How.

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May 29, 2020

The transition to full-time remote work for so many of us as a result of COVID-19 has initiated a complete transformation of work life. This includes everything from the loss of simple pleasures like water-cooler conversations to the freedom from distractions that having kids in school during the workday provides. Another major work-life shift – whose impact I believe we’ve yet to truly feel – is the impact of the pandemic on employee vacation days.

Spring break vacations have been canceled, with employees banking their time off for a future opportunity to utilize those precious vacation days – perhaps when they can travel, or at least enjoy pursuits like seeing a movie, shopping, or hiking. With nowhere to go – coupled with concerns about job security, finances, and a looming recession – many are saving paid-time-off (PTO) for a brighter time.

For organizations, a buildup of employee PTO caused by the pandemic raises a variety of questions and concerns. What will happen if every employee wants to take a vacation when the stay-at-home advisories lift? And as we navigate these phases of the pandemic, what will be the impact of employees banking PTO and “grinding it out” on their well-being and mental health?

Why employees leave PTO on the table

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my team at Vyond surveyed 1,000 U.S. employees at large enterprises on a variety of workplace topics, including vacation time. We found that even in a pre-coronavirus workplace, over one-quarter (28%) of employees “lost” vacation time. While the average employee had 18 vacation days, they only took 16 of those. In particular, Millennials (29%) and Gen X (33%) employees were found to be more likely than Baby Boomers (22%) to have lost vacation days in the past three years.

Some of the reasons employees did not take allotted vacation days were due to feeling there was too much work to accomplish to take a vacation (58%), feeling guilty about taking vacation days (27%), wanting to prove they are a hard worker (26%), and feeling like vacations are pointless because they cannot disconnect from work (26%). Again, Millennials are disproportionally affected as the most likely age group to feel too guilty to take vacations (35% of Millennials vs. 28% of Gen X and 7% of Baby Boomers). On top of these feelings, the survey found that one in five (20%) Americans feel their company shames employees who take allotted vacation time.

We all know how nice a vacation day feels – and how necessary it is to take an occasional break. If we’re too scared of judgment or stressed to get away, we risk losing the feeling of refreshment and revitalization that PTO is meant to provide. These findings are not only concerning for our colleagues’ well-being but for the overall health of our organizations.

Vacation in a post-COVID workplace

If employees felt this way before COVID-19 drastically shifted our lives, how will their perceptions about taking time off be affected in a post-coronavirus world?

While it’s still a developing situation, COVID-19 will likely shift our feelings about PTO and taking vacations. Some employees may feel lucky to still have a position and fear facing shame from coworkers or scrutiny from managers. Others may be worried that they will be viewed as lazy or nonchalant about work for taking time off. And as our homes have become offices, escaping from the pile of work might seem even more impossible, or even irresponsible as emails and projects are now only a few clicks away. In fact, a recent survey from Buffer revealed that 18% of remote workers named not being able to unplug as their biggest struggle.

What can leaders do about it?

Fortunately, there are steps leaders can take now to tackle this unprecedented challenge. What should they do? In brief: communicate, communicate, communicate.

Leaders know that they should be clear about PTO expectations. Yes, the policy typically lives on a page in the employee handbook, and employees know how many days they have for the year, how many they can take in a row, and how frequently they accrue. They may know about rollover policies or payouts for unused days. But how often have employees heard directly from leaders about the importance of time off and organizational expectations that hardworking employees deserve a break?

Regardless of what your organization’s PTO policy is, it can – and should – be brought to life by leadership. Take the time to communicate with your employees about your vacation policy, why it exists, and how employees should approach time off. Encourage managers to check in with their direct reports about their package and encourage them to plan PTO into their calendars. Whether they’re a world traveler or more of a staycation type of person, everyone deserves a break.

Leaders should also encourage honest dialog around how employees are feeling and employ empathy with each employee’s current situation, whether they are navigating shelter-in-place alone or with a house full of children who demand their time and attention.

Bringing your vacation policy to life is not an easy task and employees are craving guidance. Establishing employee training on PTO can help, and the way in which this training is implemented matters more than ever. Our survey identified the most preferred type of training among employees is self-led online training (51%), compared to instructor-led training and one-on-one coaching. I encourage leaders to consider implementing video communications to share powerful content that tackles these difficult-to-discuss topics and instills a message people can understand and internalize. Videos offer a simple way to effectively communicate important information that plain verbal or text-based explanation cannot do justice. So whether it’s a video message from a leader, interactive animated video, or virtual training, these methods can help arm your employees with the facts they need to understand the policy and confidently manage vacation time without guilt or fear of shame.

Your organization has a PTO policy for a reason. Let’s make the most of it and allow vacation days to serve their purpose – to refresh employees and provide a space to get away from the stress of day-to-day work. It’s now more important than ever before.