Article main image
Jun 9, 2022

During the course of my career, I can safely say I’ve coined more than a few phrases – everything from PLC (or Personal Levels of Comfort), to Be Savvy Not Savage when navigating office politics. But PTO (or Prepare The Others) is one that I’ve borrowed from some funny social media videos. In the clips, employees declare they are not coming to work the next day, so “PTO (Prepare The Others), because I’m not coming.”

So, what’s the fascination with this latest acronym? Well, for HR professionals, PTO means Paid Time Off. But I think the social media version is important, because at a time where people habitually ‘don’t’ take the time off they’re owed, HR professionals really ought to be asking one fundamental question: What can management do to PTO (Prepare The Others) so that employees can take PTO (paid time off)?

Before answering this directly, we must first recognize there are typically three types of people when it comes to taking Paid Time Off days. Each of whom has their own set of challenges:

1) Takers

Takers are the people social media comically portrays in Prepare The Others videos. You do not have to ask Takers twice if they’ll be taking their vacation days or not. This group max out their vacation days; they often take more days than they actually officially have, preferring to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.

2) Leavers

By contrast, leavers contribute to the 768 million vacation days left on the table every year. Leavers give back their vacation days. As Head of Working Parents for US global coaching company, Talking Talent, I coach people who contribute to these hundreds of millions of leftover days. When I discover they’re doing this, I ask: “If your company offered you a $10,000 bonus, would you tell them $6,500 would be OK and they can keep the other $3,500?” Of course, the answer is always no. And yet they still don’t take what’s owed to them.

3) High Achievers

High Achievers do take vacations, and for many take all their due days. But when they take a vacation, they also take their laptops with them. When they are out of the office, their out-of-office reply says things like: “I am out of the office for the next 10 days on vacation, but I will be checking email daily,” or “…but if you need to reach me, call my cell phone.” As a coach, this mindset makes me sad.

The second thing to recognize is why people feel obligated never to be entirely off work.

I believe there are several reasons for this:

  • Perceived company culture: Leavers and High Performers have seen that others in their organization don’t usually take all their vacation days, so maybe they shouldn’t either. The company culture shows that, even though you may be granted five weeks of vacation as a benefit, it is an unwritten (but often spoken)rule that you are available to your clients, no matter what. This is especially true in industries that work with multiple clients at once. Of course, doing something just because everyone else is doing it has never been a good reason to do anything.
  • Drive to get ahead: I feel like I need to prove myself.” This is a phrase I often hear from juniors, or new employees. In their minds, “prove myself” means “work as hard as I can,” which equates to “work as MUCH as I can.” Ultimately, when someone buys into this propaganda, they set expectations that will damage their overall wellbeing.
  • I’m the only one who can do what I do:Some people have been convinced (or have convinced themselves), that if they are not at work to perform their job, no one else can do it. As a professional coach, I quickly challenge this belief by saying, “If you decided to walk into your boss’ office tomorrow and announce that today is your last day, what do you think would happen?” Without hesitation, they respond they: “would figure it out.”

 So, understanding all of this, what can management do to PTO (Prepare The Others), so that employees can take PTO (paid time off)? 

To me it all starts with creating a psychologically safe space where people feel like they can completely unplug.

Here’s what this should look like:

  1. Prepare HR: Companies should empower and instruct HR to strongly promote taking vacation days during the onboarding of new employees. HR should use this time to set the expectation that, as a company, it values PTO as protected time off (this means any type of personal leave), and staff should strive to treat it as such. This means contacting an employee for any matter during their time off will only happen in the case of a REAL (not perceived) emergency. HR should have the authority to say that if employees experience excessive contact from colleagues or their direct managers while on leave, this type of situation should be immediately reported to HR.
  2. Prepare to staff: Have enough people on your team so that the absence of one person doesn’t completely undo the entire operation. A company’s business design should come with consideration of benefits. If you offer every employee five weeks’ of PTO, your business design should reflect this benefit. It should be staffed to accommodate someone being entirely out of the office for possibly five consecutive weeks. If it doesn’t, hire more people.
  3. Prepare management: It’s the job of management to manage. One definition of managing is to succeed in surviving or attaining one’s aims, especially against heavy odds. Managers should be prepared to make the show go on if one of their employees quits in the middle of the workday, let alone if someone requested PTO with proper notice.
  4. Promote rest and recovery: Portugal has passed a labor law that bans employers from contacting people during non-work hours. It says that working people are entitled to 11 hours of uninterrupted “night rest.” It sounds extreme, but at least Portugal is making noticeable efforts to make employees feel protected.

Not allowing employees to be wholly disconnected from their work leads to extreme burnout. That’s EXTREME burnout. It doesn’t speak well of an organization if it can’t continue to operate if one person is not there.

As we all know, we’re in a period of the Great Resignation. So if companies want to retain and attract star talent, they need to model, create, promote, encourage and set an expectation of a company culture that PTOs (Prepares The Others) so that employees can actually take PTO.