Why You Should Encourage Your Team to Take Time Off

Taking paid time off is not only a legal right, but it’s key in reducing stress and increasing productivity. Here’s our expert advice on encouraging your team to take time off and how to lead by example.

Robert Hosking, Senior Vice President, Managing Director – Search Practices, LHH Knightsbridge
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Why you should encourage your team to take time off

I’ve got a problem with my team.


Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been blessed with an incredibly talented and hard-working team. But in the past year or so, they’ve become very reluctant to take any vacation time.


On the one hand, it’s not unusual that this is happening. During the pandemic, we’ve all been encouraged to double down on our jobs. Sheltering at home, with very few options for outside distraction or activities, our jobs have taken on a new and even greater focus. That is translating into a reluctance to use vacation time.


In the first four months of this year, nobody on my team took any of their vacation time. Many are already carrying over time from last year. Everyone is holding back, waiting for a time in the not-so-distant future when more recreational opportunities open up and we’re allowed once again to travel and actually do something or go somewhere.


Regardless of why, reluctance to take PTO — a dangerous trend that predates the pandemic – is gaining momentum thanks to COVID-19 and the work-from-home phenomenon.


An LHH survey on LinkedIn found that only 19 percent of respondents used all of their vacation time in the last year. Another 35 percent didn’t use any vacation time and 34 percent only used some of the days they were owed.


These findings are consistent with results in other countries. In the United States, studies have shown that U.S. workers made 50 percent fewer requests for PTO in the spring of 2020 than in the previous spring. Again, that’s not unusual given the fact that most non-essential travel was either prohibited or deeply curbed. However, this reluctance to take time off has been building for some time now.


Research from the U.S. Travel Association showed that in 2018, American travellers booked 1.8 billion domestic trips. However, they still left 768 million PTO days unused, which represented more than a quarter of all the paid vacation time provided by employers.


As a leader, my principal concern is that when my people don’t take time off, I know they are more susceptible to burnout and other mental health issues that can be triggered by too much work with too few breaks.


The reluctance to take PTO is also connected to another worrisome trend: the reluctance to take advantage of sick days or to confide in a boss about mental health or stress-related health problems.


A global survey from Aetna International, one of the world’s providers of health benefits, found more than half of all employees with a diagnosed mental health issue lied to their managers about the reasons they were taking time off. If they took time off at all; 30 percent of respondents said they did not take a single sick day, while 47 percent said they would not take a sick day if they were suffering from stress.


Recognizing the toll this is taking on their people, some of the world’s biggest companies are employing some radical strategies.


PricewaterhouseCoopers has started to pay its people $250 for every week of vacation they take off. Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser recently announced she was banning video calls on Fridays and had designated May 28 as “Citi Reset Day,” a company-wide, one-day holiday.


"I know, from your feedback and my own experience, the blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being," Fraser wrote in a company-wide memo. "It's simply not sustainable."


We need to do something to help our people recharge their batteries. But affecting this kind of change is not going to happen organically; leaders need to be deliberate about policies and strategies.


Help your people clear a path to PTO. One of the biggest problems many of us have is figuring out who is going to cover for you when you’re away. This is a particular concern for leaders who may not have a clear number two in place to help provide that coverage. Work with your teams to develop some redundancy so that there is always someone who can step in when another team member is on PTO. Don’t leave it to chance; unless someone is formally asked to step in, work is going to suffer.


Put limits on video calls, phone calls and emails. Work is important and you want people on your team who are dedicated and put in lots of discretionary effort. But there have to be limits. Working at home during the pandemic, it seems like many people never actually finish their workdays. Tell your team there are no calls and no emails allowed overnight or on weekends. Really try to enforce the idea that everyone needs a hard stop to their work each day so that the next day they can come back refreshed.


Managed Blackouts. As Citigroup has done, a lot more companies are designating certain days, usually around weekends, as company-wide breaks to ensure that if employees are not going to book off regular PTO, they get an extra respite. This kind of policy definitely shows employees that you care about their wellbeing and that overworked, overstressed people don’t necessarily produce the best results.


Make sure you are walking the walk. As a leader, I find it difficult to use up all of my time off even though I know that forgoing my PTO sets a really bad example for my team. Show your team that you have the confidence in them to take time off, knowing that they will cover for you. Having seen their managers take time off, they will be more likely to follow suit. The team learns quickly that they can lean on each other to allow everyone to take their hard-earned PTO.


Leaders need to be cognizant that unused PTO and reluctance of employees to take stress days can, in the long run, lead to drops in productivity, creativity and engagement.


I personally pledge to do my part this summer by taking a couple of weeks off to recharge my batteries. While on vacation, I will not answer any calls or emails. No really, I mean it this time.

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