People Don’t Want to Use Their PTO? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage a large team of creative professionals in a US-based advertising firm. My company went to an unlimited PTO plan 18 months ago. Covid-19 weirdness aside, I am finding that my people are not taking time off and seem burnt out. I am confused by this.

I talk to each of my direct reports on a regular basis about how critical it is for them to take time when they are not on the hook for work. Back when PTO was a liability for the company, we would force people to take at least two days around normal holidays to reduce the load. Now when I encourage my people to take time, they make excuses like “it’s so hard to come back from time off,” and “project overload.”

I tried to get all team members to commit to taking time this summer and submit dates so I can manage workload and project flows, but no one is committing. Some say they aren’t comfortable traveling, but still.

Last year, I tried to institute the second Monday of every month as a mental health day with no meetings so that people could use the time to clean up email and task lists, organize, or take a slow morning. Although my group was enthusiastic, no one ended up doing it.

The research shows that people who take time away from work are more creative and productive. I can’t force people, obviously, but I really believe in vacation and downtime. How can I encourage people to take better care of themselves?

All Work

Dear All Work,

I am so accustomed to letters about how to get people to work harder that this is a breath of fresh air! There is a lot of interesting research about the unlimited PTO experiment now that it has been around for about ten years. Here is an article I found that might be helpful to you.

Your concern about your people does you credit, but you must let them be adults and figure this out for themselves. As a manager, the only way you can make proper energy management an issue is if you can objectively call out that an individual’s performance is suffering. In this case, you can request that the person take a couple of days or even a week—but even then, it will be up to them to get their performance back to standard in the best way they see fit.

The other big influencer on this situation is whether you are role modeling the behavior you are seeking. Are you taking time off? And I mean really taking it? Or do you answer emails and take phone calls when you are supposed to be off? My favorite is the email that comes in that says “I know you are on vacation, but I was hoping you might ….” If you actually respond to those, you are literally training your people that there is no such thing as real vacation. You are also sending the message that you don’t trust people to make decisions or to operate without your supervision for a week.

I am not saying it is easy to take time off—of course, the more committed and invested you are, the more challenging it is. Take it from the woman who goes to Mongolia, where cell phones don’t work, to unplug—I know. But I agree with you that getting away is important, so I have made a big effort to make myself do it. You send a strong message about what you expect from your team by setting the example.

Some other ideas might be:

  • Talk to other managers in your company. What are they doing? How are they handling the unlimited PTO thing? Counterintuitively, it does seem that the biggest problem with unlimited PTO is that people take less time off because they are worried about peer competition and perception. Possibly there needs to be a cultural message from senior leadership that people are expected to take a certain amount of time.
  • Guidelines from HR? Have you received any? Maybe they were sent out and you missed them? There may be some help there.
  • Make sure your people know they won’t be punished for taking time off.
  • Conversely, don’t reward the martyrs who make a big, heroic show of long work hours. That would send the wrong message. I don’t mean there won’t be the occasional big push for the odd, unusual project. Constant heroics in this area means the team member either is not equipped to do the job or they have too much work. It was all fine and well to boast about all-nighters in college, but that just is not reasonable in real life.
  • The two things most employees (especially parents) really want are flexibility and autonomy. They want to know that as long as they get their work done on deadline at quality, they can do what they need to do to take care of themselves and the logistics of life. I recently heard about a manager who requires her people to put on their Out of Office notice when they take a bathroom break and post on their IM exactly what they are working on at any given moment. Who wants to have someone breathing down their necks like that? Not me!
  • Is performance suffering? If your people are crushing it in terms of creativity and they seem happy, maybe this isn’t even a problem; it’s just you looking for problems to solve that don’t need solving.
  • Do some research on sabbaticals. You may be passionate enough about this topic that you want to propose a sabbatical program for your organization. We provide coaching for individuals who participate in a highly structured but way out of normal work paid sabbatical for a global software company. Each individual who participates reports that it is an exceptionally fun and impactful experience. Many companies provide paid time for sabbaticals. It seems to be a very effective way for employees to refresh and renew.

You are right to care about the personal sustainability of your people—but, ultimately, it isn’t your responsibility. You can only create the safest and most inspiring environment for your people. The rest is going to be up to them.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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