People Aren’t Using their Paid Time Off? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

Our company went to “unlimited PTO” about 16 months ago.  The idea was to try it out for a year and re-evaluate.  The re-evaluation period was moved to the 18-month mark, so it hasn’t happened yet.   

You would think the problem would be people abusing the policy but I have the opposite one: my people are not taking any vacation.  Back in the day when we had a “use or lose it” policy, I had to stay on people’s cases to take their PTO and they would, but now that time off is at the employee’s discretion, I can’t get people to take their vacation. 

I have a team of nine folks and every single one of them seems to feel worried about taking reasonable time off. I am worried that people are going to burn out.  Can I make my people take time off?  What to do? I feel like I need to call a…

Time Out

Dear Time Out,

This is certainly an interesting and trending topic, and you are not alone trying to navigate the dynamics that come with such a big change.  I found an interesting post on this that may help you.

Based on my experience with clients and my own team, I would have anticipated that people not taking time off would be the problem with unlimited PTO.  In fact, the first time I heard of it a couple of years back, I thought, “Oh God, people are never going to stop working! They’re just going to work themselves into an early grave.” In some cultures this is literally true, but that is because of a cultural expectation that people work massive amounts of overtime.  

In Western cultures at least, it would seem that giving people the option to manage their own workload, get their jobs done in the agreed upon timeframe, and take care of their personal lives with flexibility could only be a good thing.  Such an approach treats people like responsible, sensible adults.  But in some organizations many people are burdened with unreasonable workloads.  Some employees are poor judges of how long certain tasks will take, so they take on too much.  Other employees burden themselves by taking on more than they should.  The very ambitious sometimes seek to assure their promotability by simply outworking their peers.  It is up to the manager to figure this out and gauge the proper workload for each person.

In certain sectors people are going to be more affected by high performance pressure than others, making it feel unsafe for people to take time off.

People avoid taking time off for many reasons: For example, they:

  • Feel they are indispensable and believe nobody else can do the job they do.
  • Worry their customers will be upset by their absence.
  • Succumb to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)—they don’t want to miss getting in on an exciting project.
  • Fear being judged—they don’t want to be seen as a slacker.
  • Bank their hours for a “rainy day”—rather than taking a big vacation, they save their hours in case an unexpected illness or emergency requires them to be out of the office

You, as the manager, need to discuss PTO with every person you lead.  Each individual is going to have a different concern and you can work with them to alleviate those concerns.  You can also work as a team to assure that plans are made in advance and people are properly covered during their time off.

The benefit of the unlimited PTO policy is that it provides people with flexibility in their work day to attend to family or other personal matters without having to submit paperwork.  The danger is that people won’t take the time they need to rest, play, and get a change of scenery—activities that research shows are critical to mental and physical health.

You are the leader of your group.  Make it clear to your people that you expect them to take vacation time, rest time, time to go to doctors’ appointments, and other kinds of self-care. Show them you mean it by doing these things yourself. Have you planned your own vacation?



About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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