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Ettore Toppi August 3, 2020 5 min read

How to Encourage Employees to Take Vacation Time During COVID-19

“You’re taking a vacation? Now?” My coworker was incredulous. “In the middle of a global pandemic? I’m saving my vacation time until Europe reopens!”

My specific plans notwithstanding, my coworker’s comments make sense. Amid a worldwide health crisis, taking vacation could be seen as a pointless exercise. With travel limited and attractions closed, time away from the office looks like a promising getaway for…couch potatoes only!

The truth is, though, that even in a lockdown, personal time off (PTO) offers enormous benefits, both for employees and employers. Your people may be looking at the current state of the world—turbulent financial markets, layoffs and furloughs, work stoppages—and thinking that a vacation now could be the shortest distance between them and the unemployment line. Even in the face of use-it-or-lose-it time-off policies, your people may mistakenly believe that delaying or forfeiting their PTO is the right choice. 

That sort of thinking can cause myriad problems for employees giving up earned vacation benefits and the companies they work for. 

During this COVID Summer, the inventory of vacation days is accruing for employers across the country. According to a study of 3,000 companies by HR software provider Zenefits, PTO requests in April and May were down by nearly half compared with the same period last year—63,000 versus 120,000. 

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. That inventory of days represents the one commodity most people cherish more than any other: free time. That’s tens of thousands of days not spent playing catch with the kids nor getting away for a head-clearing change of scenery. At the same time, as any accounting department will tell you, accrued but unused PTO is typically considered a balance-sheet liability, so this trend can have a measurable impact on your bottom line. And don’t ignore the specter of potential staffing shortages as too many of your people postpone vacations to year end in the hope of a COVID-19 cure. 

That’s why, counterintuitive as it may seem, this is a great time to push your employees offline—and on vacation. 

5 Reasons Why Your People Should Take a Vacation Now

Vacations amp up employee productivity. 
Between the health crisis, financial difficulties, and social unrest, employees are more stressed than ever. People simply need time to depressurize and recharge. Whatever minimal productivity you lose while employees are out is more than worth the benefits you reap when they return. They’ll come back energized, creative, and more productive

All work + no play = burnout.
Your employees are an asset, and chances are you’ve made a substantial investment in every one of them. Burnout and disengagement threaten that investment. Burnout can lead to health problems, like heart disease or hypertension, and increased substance abuse. In addition to lost productivity, longer-term effects can be devastating to employees personally and to your organization. Think hassling with staff turnover, lost revenue, and increased health plan costs.

PTO encourages organizational cross-functionality.
Some employees may not use all their PTO because they worry that projects will stall in their absence. Building and training cross-functional teams creates an environment that eases employee fears about what will happen while they’re gone—and ensures they won’t return to a mess. In the long run, adopting a cross-functional approach leads to better business outcomes, even during non-PTO periods. It helps cross-train employees, spreads knowledge across more people, and reduces risk to key personnel.

You might be on the hook to pay it out later. 
While there’s no law requiring you to offer paid vacation, chances are you already do. In fact, 76% of private industry workers receive paid vacation days, with an average of 10 days per employee. At the same time, a number of U.S. states require that you pay out unused, earned vacation time when an employee leaves your company, even if you have a use-it-or-lose-it policy. So, although you can discourage active employees from carrying time over to the following year, you may still have to cut a check for those who leave before the current year is up. 

PTO creates a positive association with your organization’s culture.
People want to work for an employer that shares their values and makes them feel supported. If your organization’s culture fosters a sense of fear or guilt around taking time away, employees will respond accordingly. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2018 Research by Project: Time Off, employees who worked for a company that encourages vacation were much happier than those who worked someplace where vacation was discouraged. What’s more, they were more likely to use all their vacation time. 

A more vexing question than WHY encourage employees to use their PTO is HOW. As an employer, you understand that your employees will benefit from time away from the office. But short of making PTO mandatory, what can you do?

SHRM reports that a substantial number of employers—42%—are facing the COVID-19 PTO challenge by making or planning changes to time-off policies. But these levers often end up being short-term fixes or sources of friction and resentment for employees. 

Consider an Approach That Will Have More Positive and Longer-Lasting Results: Communication

Now is a great time to carefully review your organization’s messages about regular, planned time off. Are you creating a positive culture that encourages your people to relax and recharge? Are your communications employee-focused and supportive?

Here are 5 easy ways to spur everyone to take vacation now without imposing draconian policies or mandates.

Remind employees of your current policies. 
They may not understand what’s at stake, what your PTO carryover rules are, or any use-it-or-lose-it policy.

Reinforce the benefits of using every PTO day. 
These are stressful times, and everyone needs to take a break, so now is the ideal time to reach out with compassion. Let your people know that planned time off is essential to both their health and the organization’s—and it’s encouraged. This is also a perfect opportunity to reinforce the notion that taking time off won’t jeopardize their jobs.

Communicate any changes carefully, and provide plenty of context. 
If PTO policies have to change, either because of the economic downturn or to encourage people to take time off, be sure to explain the reasons clearly and honestly. 

Get managers on board to support the message. 
All too often, top leadership says one thing while direct managers say something else entirely. It’s a commonly heard refrain: “Corporate says we should take all our PTO, but my group is understaffed. Our manager hasn't approved any vacation in months!" Sound familiar? If so, it’s time to explain the bottom-line benefits to every link in your organization’s chain.

Lead by example. 
Showing is more effective than telling. Encourage managers and leaders to model taking time off. Let your people see that even you need to get away now and then. 
Bon voyage!

Ettore Toppi

Ettore Toppi, Senior Communications Consultant, creates engaging communications campaigns that ensure employees are informed and connected with their benefits.