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Dec 11, 2020

The holidays are stressful in the best of times, nevermind during a global pandemic. It’s no wonder that burnout is running rampant through ranks of remote workforces. A recent  Emplify survey of 1,000 newly-remote employees found that almost 60% feel that they have to be more available outside of work hours since shifting to remote work. Additionally, more than half of respondents have taken less paid time off (PTO) since the start of the pandemic — even though taking time off to rest and recharge is one of the best ways to combat burnout. 

What’s more, requesting time off for the holidays has been giving people heartburn for years. A 2018 survey by West Monroe Partners found that 51% of employees felt uncomfortable asking their manager for PTO during the holidays. This year, there are several reasons why employees may be especially reluctant to take time off:

  1. There is simply too much work to do
  2. The “survivor’s guilt” that comes with knowing that there are 10.7 million unemployed people
  3. Travel plans are on hold, so taking time off means staying home

But here’s the kicker: The reason doesn’t matter, because the outcome is the same: cynicism about one’s job, decreased productivity, reduced performance, and mental and emotional exhaustion.

So if people need to rest but are unwilling to do so of their own volition, removing the choice altogether may be the only option. That’s right, I’m talking about mandatory PTO

How Our Company Implemented Mandatory PTO

We tried it at Emplify earlier this year after our own employee engagement data revealed that our people were burned out and needed a break but didn’t feel like they could take time off without missing meetings and getting behind on work. So we mandated that meetings could only occur Monday through Thursday and gave everyone Fridays off for a month. 

We found this approach, as opposed to requiring people to take a certain number of days off at their leisure, lent itself better to the purpose of PTO. It turns out that it’s a lot easier to stay out of your inbox if you know your boss isn’t reading and sending emails, either. Imagine that.

The positive feedback we received from employees spoke for itself, but the data we collected at the end of the trial gave us hard evidence that mandatory Fridays off accomplished what we intended. People came back to work recharged, and overall camaraderie and loyalty and to the company purpose increased. 

3 Steps to Mandating PTO

If you’re thinking about enforcing a mandatory PTO period for the holidays, here are three steps to ensure it’s a success. 

1. Consider forcing everyone to take PTO at the same time. 

People can more easily resist the temptation to work on a day off if no one is working on that day. Collective mandatory PTO also significantly reduces the headache of trying to schedule meetings when everyone is off on different days. 

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are typically company holidays, so consider closing the office for the entire week of Christmas or New Year’s. The way the holidays fall this year, giving people an extra three days pre- or post-Christmas means an entire week of rest, free from work-related stress.

2. Communicate the positive impact of rest on work performance. 

As someone who is intimately familiar with what makes for engaged employees, I know how crucial rest is to the engagement equation. But unfortunately, in some companies, false beliefs and stigma about taking time off persist. 

So when you mandate PTO for the holidays, you’ll need to communicate why. There is a growing body of evidence that taking time off leads to higher productivity, less stress, and improved mental health that’s just a Google search away. 

For athletes, the recovery regimen is just as important as workouts and practice. Why wouldn’t we think the same about work?

3. Set expectations and hold people accountable.

Since the entire point of mandating PTO is to ensure people rest, make sure employees know the time is not intended for heads-down work sans meetings and interruptions. Be clear that the expectation is for people to unplug and recharge, even if that means disabling email notifications and setting out-of-office responders. 

It may even be worth reaching out to clients to let them know that their inquiries will be addressed on or after January 4. To hold people accountable for their time off, consider holding a “show-and-tell” where employees can share what they did on PTO, even if it’s as simple as finishing a good book or baking with the kids.

Ultimately, mandatory holiday PTO is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. People were burned out before the pandemic, and they probably still will be after life returns to pre-pandemic normalcy. The road to burnout recovery is long, so HR leaders should be planning now for the cultural changes it will take to retain their best employees in a post-Covid world. 

But for now, mandatory holiday PTO will help employees end the year with less stress and more time to rest.