In 2022, a new trend emerged in which nearly half of all full-time U.S. employees abstained from using all their earned PTO. We talk a lot about burnout and the importance of rest, so why are people avoiding taking time off? In order to explore this subject in greater depth, we spoke with Annie Rosencrans, the U.S. People & Culture Director of HiBob. For those who are unaware, HiBob is the HR technology company that is notable for its cloud-based “people management platform,” bob. HiBob’s clients include Fiverr, Happy Socks, Revolut, and many more. Below is an edited version of our conversation with Rosencrans.
Vault-Firsthand: What were some of the catalysts to this phenomenon?
Rosencrans: Over time, the modern workplace has created a culture of burnout where employees feel pressure to demonstrate their dedication and commitment to their careers by working long hours and not taking time off. A comprehensive study by Sorbet, a PTO solutions platform, on the status of PTO of American employees and employers in 2022 found that 55% of PTO went unused—up 28% from 2019. It suggested that work culture was behind this trend with 24% of respondents stating they did not feel comfortable asking for time off and 31% believing that it was especially hard to take PTO when working from home.
Why aren’t people using their PTO?
There is a general belief that many people feel guilty about taking time off, worried that their absence will burden their coworkers or negatively impact their performance evaluations. A lack of flexibility in scheduling or a lack of clarity around how to request time off also makes it difficult for employees to use PTO effectively. Additionally, some employees might feel they have too much work to do and taking time off risks coming back to a world of pain as tasks pile up. Women are disproportionately affected when it comes to not taking all of their PTO. A study conducted by Sorbet revealed that men on average receive 10% more PTO days in their contracts than women and men also take 33% more days off than their female colleagues. 27% of women also said they felt less comfortable than men to take sick days and 19% of women said they were less comfortable taking PTO altogether.
What are some of the negative impacts of low PTO utilization on employees?
Low PTO utilization can lead to burnout and decreased job satisfaction, lower productivity, increased absenteeism, and even increased rates of turnover as employees miss out on the time to recharge and recover from work-related stress. It also impacts work-life balance and can lead to an overall decreased well-being and lower quality of life for employees.
What are some of the negative impacts of low PTO utilization on business productivity?
The impact of low PTO utilization on business productivity is closely linked to its effects on employees. When staff are tired, stressed, and overworked, they are more likely to make mistakes, have reduced engagement with their work, and need to take more sick days. This can result in lower quality of work and decreased productivity. Additionally, burnout can lead to low morale among employees, which can have a detrimental effect on the overall workplace culture and hinder a business's ability to attract and retain top talent. Ultimately, an ineffective workforce coupled with the inability to hire high performers can have a significant impact on a business's bottom line.
How can employers identify the signs of overwhelmed or burnt-out employees?
It is important for employers to be able to identify the signs of overwhelmed or burnt out employees as this can allow them to intervene before these issues become more severe. Some common signs include a change in productivity and engagement, increased absenteeism, decreased quality of work, and changes in behavior or attitude. Employees who are burned out may also seem more irritable or withdrawn than usual, or may express feeling overwhelmed or unsupported. Changes in appetite, increased alcohol or drug use, or physical symptoms like headaches or stomach issues can also indicate something is not right. Managers need to become attuned to these signs and symptoms and need to keep a special eye on employees manifesting any of these symptoms who are also not taking all of their PTO.
What can employers do to encourage their employees to take PTO and/or care for their well-being?
Employers can encourage employees to take PTO by creating a workplace culture that values work-life balance and embolden workers to take time off when they need it. This can include offering more flexible work arrangements or schedules, and openly promoting the benefits of taking time off for mental and physical health. Companies can also provide resources for stress management and mental health support, such as access to counseling services or wellness programs. Employers should lead by example and prioritize their own well-being, demonstrating to employees that taking time off and caring for oneself is supported and valued by the company.
How might this affect those who are just entering the workforce for the first time?
Not taking PTO can have significant implications for those just entering the workforce as it can set unrealistic expectations, promoting a cycle of bad practice, and impacting long-term career prospects if they fall victim to burnout early on. New employees may also be less likely to speak up or make any demands. They may feel insecure about asking for PTO or other benefits if they perceive that taking time off is not valued or encouraged by their employer. This only serves to perpetuate the trend impacting the overall workplace culture. Enabling a culture focused on productivity at the expense of long-term sustainability will end badly for all and underscores the importance of prioritizing employee well-being and work-life balance from the outset.
How do you see this issue playing out into the future?
Changing this issue in the future requires a complete cultural shift, which will not happen until employers start leading from the front on this issue. But even that is not proving straightforward. Big blue chip organizations are among a list of growing companies switching from offering employees a fixed allowance of PTO to unlimited vacation. It seems at first like a dream come true for staff, and indeed these plans can also have business benefits including saving companies money by increasing retention and not having to payout unused vacation when an employee leaves; however, if the company culture on taking PTO is unchanged, these policies will feel more like a con. It’s also open to potential abuse, increasing the burden for others and it could be very hard for managers to prevent overlaps during popular months for taking vacations. Not having a policy can also be confusing as to how much vacation is too much. People will still feel the same pressure and guilt—that unfortunately won’t change overnight despite policies like these.
A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2022 revealed that HR experts supported unlimited PTO as part of an overall flexible work model, so while this policy is relatively new, it is likely to gain pace in years to come.
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