Why Do So Many of Us Struggle With Taking PTO?

Why Do So Many of Us Struggle With Taking PTO?

We’re more than halfway through the year, and we’re curious: how many paid vacation days have you taken so far? All of them? Half of them? None at all? If you said “yes” to one of the last two, are you planning on using them by the end of the year? Or saving them for a rainy day, only to be carried into the following year (if you have that luxury)? We asked you these very questions over on LinkedIn, and 78 percent of you said you were definitely planning on using up all of your PTO, while 22 percent answered with “not likely.” For those in the “not likely” camp, here’s what you had to say:

“With the flu and COVID going around and a child, it's all sick time for me this year. I haven’t been able to take true ‘vacation time’ since the pandemic.”

“I have a major project launching over multiple weeks of in-person events, so there probably won't be time to get the work done and take PTO.”

“I'm self-employed… so PTO never really happens.”

Do any of these sound familiar? In 2018, Americans collectively racked up 768 million unused days of PTO (think how many trips to Puglia that is!), according to this research by Zippia. Why is that? Well, 54 percent of surveyed workers reported that they felt guilty for taking the time off. Others were short-staffed and felt like they couldn’t, and some simply didn’t want to go through all of the extra work (and stress) that comes with being off (hours of prep beforehand, plus hundreds of emails and a mountain of Zoom invites when you return).

And if you do make it to the point of actually being on vacation, so many of us have trouble truly shutting off. According to a 2022 study from Qualtrics, 49 percent of respondents did at least 30 minutes of work per day of vacation. That’s not even a vacation.

"Employees often feel guilty for taking time off work or may not believe they deserve PTO depending on their role," says Lauren Stempel, the vice president of recruiting, west, at Betts Recruiting. "This is especially true if the employee is in a situation where taking PTO means that someone else has to absorb the work in their absence."

For what it's worth, Stempel is doing her part. At Betts, employees who have been with the company for more than two years receive a stipend that can only be spent on vacation—nothing else! Stempel has seen this work better than a use-it-or-lose-it policy favored by most companies. So, I asked Stempel to enlighten me on the ways we might work to break this cycle of guilt—which can lead to resentment and burnout if left unchecked.

What can employers do to set better boundaries with their work while on vacation?

“Every employee, including executives and managers, should have a strong coverage plan organized ahead of their departure with their colleagues. This ensures that other team members are aware of your projects and know exactly how to proceed in your absence. If this planning is done ahead of time, you’ll have ample coverage while you’re away and won’t have to be distrubed unless it’s a true emergency.”

What are the best ways to use your PTO?

“Schedule three-day weekends a few times a year and plan one big vacation for one to two weeks. This PTO cycle allows employees to continuously recharge and unplug rather than only once a year. This balance of taking time for yourself during long weekends and being able to fully disconnect for at least a week will make you a better, happier employee.”

What are some things that companies can do to make taking PTO easier for their employees?

"Company executives and managers should lead by example. By taking their own vacation and PTO days, they are showing their teams that it’s OK to prioritize well being, mental health and disconnecting from work. Every single employee needs the distance that PTO and vacation provide to recharge and rest so that they can perform their best when they do return to the office.”

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