Taking Time to Rethink PTO

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Jan 07, 2020
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Our culture values hard work. We tell one another to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, or to be self-made individuals. We preach and hold sacred the American Dream—the idea that anyone can improve their life so long as they work hard enough.

But there is a flip side to these values. To better ourselves and produce quality work, we sometimes can work ourselves into exhaustion. One of the ways employers have tried to combat this is by offering Paid Time Off (PTO). The effectiveness of PTO is a matter of debate, however, and employers and employees both continue to figure out exactly what type of PTO plan is best for them.

The Paradoxes of PTO

A study done by TSheets found that American workers received 11 days of PTO for vacation and sick leave. That number, though, can be misleading—the American government doesn’t guarantee any PTO for workers, so some employees receive no PTO at all. PTO can also be a rarity for part-time employees, even those who ultimately work full time hours by working two jobs. American PTO offerings seem even slimmer when looking at other countries with advanced economies such as the United Kingdom and Germany. The U.K. requires 28 days of PTO, while Germany requires 20 (and that’s not including public holidays, either).

Since PTO comparatively less in the U.S., you might assume that workers would take full advantage of PTO. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The TSheets study found that three in five employees have unused PTO days by the end of the year. Nationally, workers lost about $172 billion nationally in unused PTO over the past year.

Reasons employees don’t use PTO can vary. Some employees avoid using all their PTO because their employers let them roll over unused PTO into the next calendar year. An extended vacation to the Caribbean may or may not be in that employee’s future. Yet the case with many employees is that they feel pressured to work as much as they can in order to achieve excellence in their work and please superiors.

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The Employer’s Perspective

Before you make definite decisions on how to implement PTO in your company, it’s important to remember what benefits companies receive by offering their employees PTO. 

First, offering PTO likely will make your employees happier and healthier. The adverse effects of prolonged stress are well documented. Even if not all employees take advantage of PTO, failing to offer PTO will create more stress than if PTO is simply an option. 

Second, PTO is an important recruiting tool. A good amount of PTO will entice the best job candidates to accept your offers. It will also contribute to a more positive, contented environment that should have an impact on your company’s ratings on sites like Glassdoor—sites that rate employer desirability and are frequented by job candidates. Competitive PTO offerings will reduce turnover too, so recruiting could end up being less of an issue overall. 

If you want your company to take advantage of these benefits to PTO, consider offering PTO days that at least match the national average. You don’t have to offer as much as the U.K. or Germany, but you want to at least offer enough that job candidates find your offerings compelling. Next, consider educating your employees on the importance of taking time off. Whether it’s through emails or orientations, tell your employees that you expect them to take time off, and that taking time away from work often benefits everyone in the end. 

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