The Problem with Unlimited PTO

Americans are notorious for not taking vacations. Employees consistently have leftover vacation days at the end of the year… and it affects their work. In fact, Glassdoor found that the average American only took about 54 percent of their PTO days in 2018.

The bright side is employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of time off and the affect stress can have on workplace performance. Companies are trying all kinds of tactics, from summer hours or 4-day workweeks, to unlimited PTO to encourage employees to take time off, or at least look like they’re encouraging time off.

The problem with things like unlimited PTO is that they ultimately end up hurting employees. An employee who took five weeks of PTO (even though that’s allowed under company policy), versus one who only took one week, is likely looked down on, or at the very least, loses key projects or accounts to workers who didn’t take time off.

While companies may have the intention of helping improve employees’ work-life balance with unlimited PTO, it’s difficult to make sure staff and managers are using it the way it’s intended. Whether it’s employees not providing enough notice when they want to take vacation, or managers fostering an environment where staff feels punished when they use PTO, having a policy as ambiguous as “unlimited PTO” invites confusion and misuse. Employees with a positive view of your company may view it as a perk, but those with a less positive opinion may just see it as lip service.

Employees and managers need clear expectations, which most unlimited PTO policies don’t have…and you don’t have to offer unlimited PTO in order to promote healthy work-life integration.

Here are 3 tips to help employees use your company’s PTO policy the way it was intended:

Lead by example. As a manager, you can’t expect your team to use their vacation days if you aren’t. Talk about upcoming trips planned, encourage your team to take days off, make it visible when you’re taking time off and limit the amount of time you’re working or responding to emails while out of the office.

Set expectations. Make it clear what is expected when an employee is out on vacation. Whether it’s having someone report back to them from a meeting, or turning in a project before they head out, make it clear so there are no issues and a team member’s absence doesn’t negatively affect the rest of your team.

Focus on engagement. Productive and happy employees are engaged employees. When they’re not on vacation, conduct regular check-ins with employees on how they’re doing, what they’d like to do more of, any challenges they’re facing. Also called “stay interviews,” the point is to build relationships and collaborate with employees to come up with new challenges they can tackle or help them work through a problem, so they remain engaged and involved when they’re in the office.

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