Did The Pandemic Change The Way We Think About PTO?

Posted on October 28, 2021 by BWBacon. Tagged: Resources for Candidates, For Candidates, Resources for Entrepreneurs, For Clients

PTO can be a challenging and often complex aspect of benefits that all companies must manage. Particularly during the pandemic, most employees have not been taking enough time off, regardless of policies, and this is due to a variety of reasons. We’re here to talk about the ongoing disconnect between organizations’ time-off policies and the culture around using them.

Most folks would probably say it’s well known that time off helps workers take care of their mental health, avoid burnout, and perform well. So why do statistics continue to show a decrease in PTO used year after year? In 2018, the percentage of unused days of vacation time rose 9% from the year before. If that factor isn’t staggering enough, American workers left behind 768 million days of unused PTO, more than 27% of what was earned that year! In the meantime, the issue has only been exacerbated further. Based on a more recent IPX1031 survey, 56% of employees will have unused PTO balances in 2021, meaning companies saw an increase of about $60B in accrued PTO liability for all of 2020.

It’s Time To Get Real About Overworking Culture

Deloitte Research refers to this phenomenon of unused PTO as the “disconnect disconnect.” While noting how far we have strayed from understanding the true value of time off, their study dives into the various cultural boundaries that impact how and when employees decide to use their vacation time, or rather, not use it. Even if employees understand the benefits of taking downtime for rest and overall health, many resist taking time off due to rising pressures to perform and be “on” 24/7.

In previous blog posts, we’ve discussed burnout, and ways organizations can get ahead of it. In this case, it’s important to distinguish that burnout is not just another form of stress, it’s the outcome of unsuccessfully managed stress over time. As we’ve already seen in 2021, burnout is majorly impacting the global workforce, making people feel exhausted, disconnected, and in turn, cutting down on productivity. To put it in perspective, one study reported that 75% of workers are currently experiencing burnout.

Additionally, the risk of depression has risen 102% for employees of all ages, and 305% for employees who are 20-39. These figures are staggering, and speak to a bigger cultural issue that employees hesitate to do what’s best for them out of fear of damaging their reputation, losing their job, or experiencing guilt for taking time off while also working from home. We’re all familiar with this feeling. Some call it work martyr culture, but it leads to people working longer hours with less vacation in order to be perceived as more loyal, and irreplaceable. So how do we push back on busy culture and start to recover?

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Finding Balance Is Easier Said Than Done

This is a great opportunity to solicit feedback from your employees, or start by reflecting the unspoken culture of taking time off. Would you say your management team actively encourages people to rest and leads by example? Is there a culture of support and collaboration where people feel their work can be covered if they do step away for a few days? Both of these questions get to the heart of why employees struggle to take time off, despite generous policies.

As the health and wellness of workers has become inextricably linked with the bottom line, employers face an issue that simply cannot be ignored or powered through. Globally, annual productivity losses add up to $1 Trillion, and companies cannot afford to have their people functioning at half capacity in a challenging economy. Decreased productivity and creativity stifles innovation, increases turnover, and diminishes brand perception if an environment is so challenging it causes people to leave. With all of this said, awareness is the first step in finding more balance.

Tweaking your PTO policies to reflect the changes we have all experienced in the last two years conveys willingness to grow, versus holding onto the policies of the past. Start a conversation on the idea of “rest ethic,” and defining what it means for both the organization and individuals to “rest.” How can your team cultivate taking more time off through strategic processes? This could involve upgrading how people schedule time off, or managers suggesting that team members take time off after a large project, before starting the next. Through these approaches, we can begin to give people “permission” to take time away from work and recharge.

5 Ideas For Boosting Your Current PTO Policy

If your organization is open to adjusting or reassessing your PTO policy as a result of COVID-19, you’re in the minority. Consulting firm Willis Towers Watson found that only 42% of companies plan to make any changes to their vacation policy to promote greater flexibility, or will consider allowing people to carry over unused PTO. This is backed by another poll conducted by Monster, stating that over 60% of employers did not allow for vacation rollover, and provided no additional wiggle room on vacation, despite the pandemic. Businesses should interpret this information as a sign to put their people first, or they will likely see greater attrition due to a cultural disconnect. Here’s 5 ideas for adapting your PTO policy:

  1. Consider time-off “microdosing,” or the practice of obligating work breaks for mental health and/or rest. If everyone is scheduled to take breaks, they are more likely to happen. Leaders can encourage team members to exercise, take a technology break, or do any other restorative activity that helps them feel refreshed. Microdosing time-off can help people be more productive during the day, and prepared for taking bigger chunks of time off later on.

  2. Increase mental health/all company off days. Everyone needs more self-care! Yes, even you who momentarily thought, “I’m fine!!” Whether your team is worried about performance or having issues separating work and home life, gifting mental health days (could be the whole company, they could rotate monthly…) is essential for recovery after an incredibly stressful year. Slingshot CEO, David Galownia, said in an interview, “The pandemic has been hard on everyone’s mental health. Just like paid-sick leave, Slingshot employees can take a day to stave off burnout and rest their minds.” Adding mental health days gives your people the breaks they deserve.

  3. Be open to talk about perceived culture versus reality. People react to the type of environments they work in and while this idea is more big-picture, it goes without saying that both stress and calm can be contagious. Bringing mindfulness to what is said during meetings or implied about people who have chosen to take time off (positive or negative) can have a huge impact on people’s comfort level in raising PTO-related issues or coming up with new solutions. This is where having discussions with your employees is key, and whatever way you approach soliciting that feedback, it can guide you in closing that perceived culture gap.

  4. Implementing a parental leave policy can make a big difference for families, and for retention. As the US is one of the only developed nations without government obligated parental leave, having a PL policy indicates that your benefits package is modern and attentive to employee’s changing needs. Over the last five years, paid parental leave is quickly becoming a standard element in a comprehensive time-off programs. If you’d like to learn more about what types of parental leave policies are out there and how to implement one for your business, read this post.

  5. A final idea for re-vamping PTO in a remote working world is to allow employees to carryover their accrued PTO. Many people have hesitated to travel and take time off during the pandemic, for a myriad of reasons, and it’s a sign of goodwill for employers to be understanding and flexible. Some people were simply not comfortable traveling in 2020, while others gained unexpected responsibilities in caring for children and elderly family members and were not able to take time off. Due to this, businesses have a lot to gain by communicating that there are other avenues for using or cashing out on earned time, or at least that they want to work with their employees in creating a viable work-life balance.

Building A Foundation Of Trust

The pandemic changed a lot about how we think about life, especially when it comes to our jobs and how we spend our time. For more examples, take a look at this great visual on how companies are re-imaging and changing their PTO policies in 2021. In general, a changing world gives us the opportunity to better listen to one another, and find what truly works for everyone.

For many of the ideas we’ve shared in this post, the foundation of their success is in mutual trust and support. When it comes to time off, trust is made up of a combination of vulnerability and good communication, from both leaders and employees. Not only do workers need to know that their leaders trust them to act in their own best interest, but also to act in the best interest of the company by taking time when it's needed. This extends to colleagues as well. Vacation from work is only successful when an individual knows they can let go, and fully trust their team members to cover what needs to happen in their absence.

With the worst of the COVID-19 crisis behind us, there is no better time to take stock of whether your program needs updating to respond to current trends and meet the needs of your hardworking team. If time off is an expectation, it becomes a part of culture and a selling point in finding future employees. In this, normalizing, talking about, and encouraging time off helps employees feel more comfortable to do so.

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Here at BWBacon Group, we know and live what you are experiencing as an employer or job seeker in Denver, Boulder, Dallas, San Francisco, New York City or any of the other cities we work in. We believe great recruiting starts and ends with understanding people.

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