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Wait, Companies Are Paying Their Employees To Take Time Off?

Three reasons why a burnt-out employee might skip PTO, and how young professionals should approach time off talks in today’s workplace environment

Here’s a new one: getting paid to take paid time off.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about a bevy of new perks being rolled out by the professional services firm, PWC. And among the change announced, the one that stood out the most had to do with how the company was incentivizing its employees to take their paid time off.

PWC is a massive firm — you might have heard of them — that employs more than 270,000 people worldwide. So, the news that the company was going to start paying employees up to $1,000 a year to schedule their PTO captured a lot of attention.

Link to the original post here.

It also begged the question … Why would a company do this?

As the article notes, the cost to the firm could be considerable. Doing some quick math, if every one of the firm’s employees took advantage of the policy, it would cost PWC almost $3 million per year. All that expense so employees will take PTO that’s already available. PTO that’s, well, paid.

U.S. Chairman, Timothy Ryan, said the company wanted employees to know they’re “serious” about the impacts of burnout. But isn’t that why a company has a PTO policy in the first place? To ensure employees are showing up to work rested and healthy and ready to contribute?

Something else is going on.

So today, let’s walk through three explanations for why an employee who has available PTO would need to be paid to take it. And let’s talk about how young professionals should position themselves when planning their next vacation.

Explanation #1: Rampant Overwork Culture

The United States has a cultural problem. We simply work too much.

For years, the issues of rampant overwork culture — or the cult of overwork as The New Yorker likes to call it — have been emerging from the shadows. We, as Americans, have begun to see that working extended hours each-and-every week is destructive. It’s destructive to productivity and to mental health.

And it’s eating us up from the inside out.

Research into overwork shows dramatic impacts to cardiovascular health, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and sleep. So basically . . . everything. Working extended hours appears to be one of the most direct ways to torpedo your personal health. And you can read about first-hand accounts of overwork all over the Internet (start here).

Sure, but is all this overwork driving productivity?

The answer is pretty clearly no.

Look, for example, at data collected from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on GDP per hour worked. In 2019, the U.S. had the largest national GDP by a pretty wide margin. But when you factor in the total number of hours worked, we rank 22nd — behind countries like Ireland and Hungary, as well as the entire E.U.

We work longer. But we’re much less efficient.

Productivity taking a nosedive. (photo source)

And still, the culture of overwork wraps its tentacles around U.S.-based companies, impacting who gets promoted, who sets policy, and who grants PTO requests. It’s no surprise, then, that at many companies the idea of taking PTO is intimidating.

Even where policies are available and promoted by the HR team and senior leaders, employees may feel hesitant taking PTO for any number of reasons.

  • They may see that their boss doesn’t take PTO or makes comments about those who do. This can discourage an employee who is concerned about job security or doesn’t want to be passed over for the next promotion.
  • They may look around at their peers and compare who is taking PTO and who isn’t. Social cues within a company are powerful, and if it’s the norm for a whole team or department to skip PTO, this will have ripple effects.
  • They may see taking PTO and getting their work done as diametrically opposed. We’ll talk about this more in the next section, but the reality of taking time off can be a huge barrier for many employees.

Given the powerful cultural factors at play, companies have to think long and hard about how they can shift away from overwork. Incentivizing PTO may be a starting point, but it will be swallowed whole by company culture if that isn't fixed as well. Throwing a few dollars at the problem won’t change much.

Explanation #2: The Reality of Taking Time Off

Taking time off sounds simple. You talk with your manager, find a window of time that’s available, and schedule out a few weeks ahead.

No big deal, right?

But the reality is far more complex. For starters, leaders and HR teams are constantly under pressure to justify their headcount. Why do you need so many employees to do the work you’re doing? This line of questioning, and the need to balance the budget, can lead to difficult tradeoffs and issues of understaffing.

And when a team is understaffed, PTO becomes unrealistic.

A leader who is responsible for an understaffed team can’t imagine taking time off. Even if they do take time away, they’re almost certain to constantly check in. It’s no wonder only 7% of senior leaders fully unplug when they take a vacation and only 67% of senior leaders take their fully-allotted PTO.

Individual contributors are also likely to struggle on an understaffed team. In addition to cultural pressures, an employee may not feel confident that work can continue while they’re out. Between competing vacation schedules and other team impacts (like parental or other long-term leaves), there simply may not be enough peers to cover project or customer-facing work.

Where is everyone? (Photo by Raj Rana on Unsplash)

And that's before you factor in the challenges of cross-training. In order for an employee, especially a high-performing one, to feel comfortable taking PTO, there needs to be confident coverage. Teams that are built around easily repeatable tasks, like fielding sales or customer service calls, can manage cross-training pretty easily. But unique project work can be more challenging.

Consider an employee who works as a Project Manager within a PMO Office. The employee will be encouraged to not only be a good PM, but also specialize in a particular type of project. Maybe ones that are highly technical or involve compliance elements. And if that’s the case, simply grabbing any old PM to cover during time away will be problematic.

Organizations like the U.S. military are highly efficient at cross-training workers, which reduces the burden on each individual and can foster job rotation opportunities and increased engagement. The benefits of cross-training and job rotation are pretty clear. But many companies still don’t do it, creating a huge burden for their workers when it comes to taking PTO.

If a company is going to incentivize PTO, it also needs to make sure employees feel confident they are being adequately covered. Investing in cross-training programs can be a strong first step.

Explanation #3: The Limits of PTO

Consider this question: how long does it take to recover from burnout?

Did you guess a month? Six months? One year? Based on the data available on work-related burnout, there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit to how long recovery can take. Every individual’s circumstances are unique and what we lump together as “burnout” can have a wide range of severity.

Some workers were still recovering after a year and a half.

Contrast this with the average PTO available to U.S. workers. 10 whole days. Even if you have worked your way up, or your employer gives you a few more weeks, the numbers just don’t add up.

  • If you are hitting a point of mental and emotional exhaustion, or you’ve veered into full-on burnout, how much of an impact are those days going to have?
  • If you have to return to a stress-fueled workplace and put in crazy hours as soon as you return, how much will a few days of laying around the house improve your mood?

The answer. Not much.

Feels a bit like this. (Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash)

And the challenge has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 shutdowns. Amidst the pandemic, the available outlets for many workers are not available. Even if you have the PTO, what are you going to do with it? It’s not like you can get out of town for the weekend or take an awesome European adventure.

In response, many workers have decided to store up their vacation in hopes they can use it later on down the road. They’d rather do that than sit around the house — you know, the only thing they’ve been doing for more than a year.

At the end of the day, PTO isn’t making huge strides in helping workers battle their stress and anxiety during COVID. Otherwise, they’d probably take it. And based on the figures for burnout recovery, PTO probably wasn’t making a huge dent before COVID.

If companies are going to truly address the challenges employees face, they have to look at the real culprit. What is it like to work at the company on a day-to-day basis? What are the hour expectations? How does the company help employees balance work with other priorities?

PTO can help. And heaven knows we all need time off to stay sane. But it’s not a magic pill that can combat high rates of overwork and burnout. If a company wants to incentivize employees to take time off, I don’t see any downside. It’s likely to have a modest impact. But if a company wants to truly transform the way their workers engage, they have to think about the factors driving stress.

How Young Professionals Should Approach PTO

This discussion around PTO programs and cross-training is great and all. But what’s a young professional to do as they try to navigate asking for time off? How do you read the culture of a company to determine the best way to take care of your mental health and schedule vacation?

When thinking about PTO, here are some important factors to keep in mind:

  • Your Mental Health Is Invaluable: Seriously, there’s no paycheck that can make up for hitting maximum burnout. And the impacts of burnout to your mental and physical health can last for years. Regardless of how your company talks about taking care of employees, you’re the one who can best judge what you need. Pay attention to your mental health, and look for warning signs of burnout.
  • Read The Company (Or Prospective Company): Attitudes toward PTO vary a lot from company to company. So it’s important for you to read the room. If you’re currently at a company, look around to see how leaders are talking about vacation and how they’re acting on it. And talk to peers you trust about the team’s approach to PTO. This is also hugely important if you’re looking at joining a new company. Ask the hiring manager directly what their approach to time off and mental health is. You’ll learn a ton.
  • Be Willing To Speak Up, But Do It In The Right Way: If you’re truly struggling, and your manager isn’t regularly asking how you’re doing, it may be time to bring up the topic of mental health. Be open and honest about what you’re facing and why you need time away. And be sure to frame it not only in terms of what’s good for you, but how your time away will allow you to return refreshed and ready to contribute.
  • Lastly, Have a Plan: If it feels like you’re facing pushback from your manager, or that the person covering for you isn’t up-to-par, begin to put a plan in place for your time away. Write down your list of tasks, what needs to be accomplished, and who on the team would be best positioned to help. Then put this document in front of your manager and teammates for feedback. It shows your whole team that you value their support and don’t want to leave them struggling in your absence.

What are your thoughts on paying employees to take PTO? Drop a thought in the comments below. And join the Young Corporate page where we’re talking about career success, corporate citizenship, and more.

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Stephen Mostrom

Stephen Mostrom

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L&D @ SVB | Helping Tech Talent Level-Up Their Skills | Product Manager | Professor | MBA | Featured in The Startup, PGSG, and Entrepreneur’s Handbook