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Letter to Leaders

Take Your Damn PTO!

Paid Time Off (PTO) is one of the most aggravating benefits for businesses to enforce. (PTO is also called vacation, but for the purposes of this article I'm calling it PTO.)

PTO's purpose is to provide time for employees to get away without worrying about lost income. No one can continue to work without taking a reasonable amount of time away from their job. It’s critical to relax and recharge. Everyone is better off – mentally and physically - when they return from vacation.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” applies to work as well as relationships.

And the best way to deal with stress? Take a vacation or get away from the job.

At any point - in lockdown or not - any change of scenery is a good thing.

PTO is one of the most requested benefits employees and candidates ask for. The more, the better. Employers offering more generous PTO programs are more desirable. In fact, that’s one of the reasons unlimited vacation is so popular.

So if it’s so popular, why is no one taking it? In “normal” years, more than 700 million days of PTO go unused by American workers.

And I have never seen so much unused vacation go to waste as I have during the COVID era.

So if we’re in the midst of the most stressed out and anxiety-filled periods of our lives, why is no one taking vacation?

The easy answer that I get from most employees is, “there’s nowhere to go right now.” But that’s only partly true, and an excuse: you don’t have to go anywhere when taking time off. Just turn off and turn out.

My wife and I took a driving trip through Utah’s national parks in 2020. It wasn’t our typical vacation, but it worked.

I didn’t know I needed a change of scenery until I had a change of scenery.

Anything different and away is good.

Most employers have a “use it or lose it” policy: if you have unused vacation at the end of a calendar year, it’s gone forever. In California, where I live, it’s a bit different. Here, paid vacation is considered a wage, so there can’t be a “use it or lose it” policy. Most California employers cap how much PTO an employee may accrue.

There are much deeper reasons, I suspect, than “there’s nowhere to go.” Here are some of them:

1) Employees perceive themselves as so busy they can’t take time off.

This of course is nonsense. If you dropped dead of a heart attack tomorrow, the work somehow would get done, or not done. That’s not a valid excuse.

2) Employees believe that if they’re gone for a period of time, their boss might realize they’re expendable.

This is possible (especially now), but not realistic. If you still have a job, you’re of value to your employer.

3) Managers aren’t taking time off either.

This is valid. Managers need to model appropriate behavior, and they need to set an example of taking time off as well.

4) Employees are hoarding PTO in expectation of “cashing out” when quitting.

I’ve seen this often and if it continues, employers are going to be more stingy when offering PTO. I recently reviewed a PTO audit of a small (80 employee) company. The unused PTO – if all cashed out – was over $8 million dollars. That’s a huge liability for employers.

5) Employees are hoarding PTO or in anticipation of a medical event.

This also happens with planned surgeries or pregnancies. To me, this is fine – but let your boss know why you’re doing it.

6) “We’re in the middle of busy season/a huge project/a crisis.” One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is, “there’s never a perfect time for anything”. So do it. I’m a strong advocate for taking meaningful time off. But long periods of vacation may not work for everyone. Even single days here and there allows for quick breaks to get some rest. Many people currently use PTO for helping to ease those homeschooling or to take care of elders. You must take time off. Our effectiveness reduces with each day we don’t take time off. When you add the stress and fatigue induced by this crisis, it’s a wonder we aren’t having more crises in the workplace. (That's another good reason for Hybrid Work). Companies mandate PTO for certain periods of time (you must take all your PTO in December, or from x date to x date). Some businesses even hold managers accountable for their employees who don't take PTO. But in the final analysis, you should take PTO because it’s good for you. If you only sit at home for 5 days bingeing Netflix, it’s better than nothing. You're a leader and people look to you to set the example. Turn off your computer and iPhone. Sleep in, go for walks or drives. If you feel like it, take a longer trip. But above all, take your damn PTO.


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