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How to Create an Employee PTO Policy That Actually Works

Why (and How) to Encourage Employees to Take Their PTO

In the United States, we tend to praise and reward overwork. We see skipping breaks as a dedication to getting the job done, and working longer hours as showing resilience and loyalty.

But as we all know, this mindset can have some toxic outcomes. No one can keep working productively without high-quality breaks for long.

We all reach a point of diminishing returns, where extra work doesn’t necessarily yield a better outcome — and that means we end up effectively wasting our time by working longer hours.

Plus, working without breaks can lead to burnout, which can cause significant health problems and possibly cause your employees to leave their jobs permanently.

So, it’s important for your employees to take advantage of the paid time off (PTO) that they’re offered as part of their benefits packages.

In some offices, employees tend not to take advantage of these benefits and continue working throughout the year without a break. To encourage them to take breaks and stay healthy, managers will need to get to the bottom of why they’re not taking time off, then make changes to policies and culture to encourage them to do so.

Understand the “Why”

It seems like common sense that employees would want to take advantage of employer-sanctioned, paid time off. But employees will only take that time off if they feel they can do so without damaging their career paths, their earning prospects, and their job security.

Here are just a few of the reasons employees might never pause working to take their PTO:

They’re too overwhelmed

Some employees may be in over their heads with their job responsibilities. They may feel they can’t reasonably take time off until their work is caught up, which never seems to happen. They may tell themselves that they’ll schedule a vacation after a certain goal is reached, but that goal keeps getting pushed forward as their responsibilities continue to build up.

If employees seem overwhelmed, take your analysis a step further and analyze the deeper causes at play.

Get the bonus content: 4 Crucial Components of a PTO Policy

For example, it’s possible that they truly just do have too much work, which calls for managers to redistribute responsibilities or change deadlines to make their workload more reasonable. In other cases, the actual cause of their feelings of overwhelm may be that their current position is a bad fit for their skill set or personality.

In still other cases, employees may have underlying psychological tendencies that may prevent them from ever feeling comfortable leaving work. Maybe they’re prone to anxiety, or maybe they tend to get locked into a routine, or maybe they just want to feel that their role is essential enough that everything will fall apart in their absence. In these cases, a policy change that makes employee PTO mandatory may be the best solution (and we’ll discuss that in more detail in the next section).

They fear their manager’s reaction

It’s no secret that some managers tend to resent employees’ requests to take time off. And if managers signal to employees either explicitly or implicitly that they don’t want them to take time off, many employees won’t for anything short of an emergency. For most employees, it’s essential to maintain good favor with their manager, or their work life will become much more difficult. Employees may also fear that they’ll get passed over for promotions in favor of other employees who took less time off work.

In these cases, HR managers and leaders may want to discover what is causing managers to dread scheduling vacation time for their employees. Perhaps managers resent the fact that they have to work extra to help cover the work of the employee who is on vacation, which could indicate a need for a new hire.

But if a manager has simply internalized a value system that prioritizes work over anything else, that will require some education and training to correct, as we’ll discuss later in this article.

They’re worried that they won’t be able to meet their goals if they take time off

Maybe employees aren’t exactly overwhelmed with their work, but they recognize that taking time off makes it difficult to meet the goals that have already been laid out for them.

This is often the case for employees who work in sales and have to consistently meet a monthly quota that doesn’t change to reflect time off. For example, they may be working toward a certain bonus and know that it won’t be possible to be eligible if they don’t work every day.

Other employees whose responsibilities stay the same from month to month without any lull may have to essentially double their work leading up to their vacation, which can discourage them from ever taking one.

In these cases, employers may find that the best way to encourage employees to take PTO is to change their quotas or workload to reflect their time off, or clarify who will take over their responsibilities while they’re gone.

They think it will hurt their career

In some cases, managers may encourage employees to take PTO with their words and even body language, but ambitious employees will still assume that taking time off will affect their chances for advancement.

That’s usually because while managers encourage time off for their reports, they don’t take it themselves. We all know that actions speak louder than words, and loyal employees might get the message that vacations are fine for most, but not for those who aspire to management.

Solution: Change the PTO Policy

Some PTO policies eventually pay employees out for any days off they don’t use. Others allow employees to roll PTO over for years before they’re actually forced to use it.

You may be able to encourage employees to actually use their time off by adopting a policy that essentially forces the employee to use all their time off by the end of the year. For many employees, this will be the impetus they need to actually schedule some breaks for themselves.

Free Download: 4 Crucial Components of a PTO Policy

Solution: Change the Culture Around Time Off

Of course, you can force employees to take time off, but ideally employees will also feel good about scheduling vacations. You can encourage them with these tactics regarding PTO:

  • Explain the benefits of time off – Recharging is an essential part of the work cycle. Employees who are concerned about meeting goals or staying productive may need a reminder that getting a change of scenery or just taking a break paves the way for them to come back with better ideas and fresh energy. And in some cases, scheduling a vacation is a good way to encourage productivity, because they’ll work more efficiently to get their essential work done before they leave.
  • Teach managers how to respond to time-off requests – Managers who don’t understand the importance of welcoming time-off requests and paying attention to their body language may discourage employees from taking vacation, even if they don’t mean to. A good training program can help them learn and practice these skills.
  • Emphasize results over time sitting at a desk – In some cases, if employees understand exactly what they’re expected to deliver in order to succeed at work, it gives them peace of mind about leaving the office to take a break. Managers who don’t keep good track of what employees are responsible for may revert to a system where their only way to track work is tracking hours spent in the workplace — and that’s an outdated model, especially in light of the shift to remote work.
  • Get buy-in from leaders – No matter what the initiative, culture always starts at the top. If the very top leaders of your organization don’t truly believe that the organization will benefit from employees taking time off work, none of your initiatives to encourage them to use it will succeed.

Finally, if you’re looking for a professional training partner that can help leaders of all levels embrace the value of a healthy workplace and create a culture that respects time, reach out to us at ELI. We work with employers of all sizes to create civil workplace cultures that were built to last for the long-term.

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