How To Ensure Your Employees Actually Enjoy Their PTO

Sam Seo headshot

Sam Seo

November 18, 2021

Everybody loves vacations. But not everyone gets to take a real vacation when they take PTO. They’re either bombarded with Slack messages or can’t resist just “checking in.” 

In theory, everyone should be more than ready to use up all of their vacation days. Relaxing reduces stress, improves concentration, and boosts confidence. But, believe it or not, 52% of Americans didn’t use their vacation time in 2017, according to US Travel Association’s Project: Time Off. 

Most of the time, SMB leaders are so concentrated on making their business a success that it can be hard to unplug. But, it’s up to you as a business leader to set the standard of disconnecting on your days off.

Importance of taking a vacation

Taking a vacation is proven to improve people’s mental health. By removing activities that are associated with stress, people have the chance to relax. And being under stress at work for too long can negatively affect our physical and mental health.

And coming back from vacation can have positive effects on our work. About 64% of people are excited to get back to work after taking a vacation. Project: Time Off also found that 94% of vacations result in great ROI for an employee’s energy and outlook when returning to work. 

But vacation is only beneficial if people truly disconnect from work. The pandemic completely changed our relationships with our jobs. Nearly 70% of full-time employees were doing WFH at one point or another.

But when you work and live in the same place, setting boundaries can be difficult. There’s always work that needs to be done, and if you don’t stop yourself from continuing to work, you won’t stop at all.

Schitts Creek gif - closing the laptop

Creating these boundaries means enforcing firm rules to encourage everyone (yourself included) to completely disconnect. This can be as simple as not answering any emails or logging off of all work-related platforms.

And these boundaries need to be applied to vacation. Even when they’re on vacation, 41% of workers are still checking in on work. A good majority are afraid that no one is there to cover the work being left behind. Unplugging from work becomes as stressful as staying at work.

But without vacation time, your employees won’t get the necessary time needed for relaxation. Plus, employees not taking vacation negatively impacts your business. Cost-wise, the liabilities US businesses pay for accumulated vacation time cost $224B per year.

Prep for PTO in advance

The first step to getting your employees on vacation is setting up a good PTO policy. Your PTO should be generous enough to make sure your team feels valued while also making ensuring your business can still do good work. 

Plus, your PTO policy should have a clear procedure on how employees can request time off and how far out they can request it. That way, your employees have time to prepare their team for their absence. 

Meaning no last-minute vacations! During periods like the holidays when a lot of people want to take PTO, you want to make sure your business has enough coverage to continue operating at your usual high level. 

And when your employees ask for PTO early, you have more time to plan for these staffing issues.

At Trainual, we have 4 weeks of PTO, plus 5 sick days and 12 company-wide holidays. And instead of paying out whatever’s unused, we roll over up to a week of both PTO and sick time. 

We also ask our employees to request PTO at least 2 to 4 weeks in advance, depending on how long they’ll be out of the office. This prep time gives our employees time to delegate their tasks so nobody will have to email them while they’re trying to relax on the beach.

Shark Week gif - Adam Levine stepping off a plane

But to use your policy, your employees need to know your policy exists. Tell your new employees about your PTO policy as they’re onboarding. And make sure the policy is accessible for anyone who needs a reminder (we love Trainual for this).

🔥 Tip: Not sure how to start planning your PTO policy? Our PTO templates make it easy! And the template keeps information updated for your employees to reference at any time.

Set your systems up to be OOO

Once an employee is on vacation, they should actually be on vacation (AKA offline and disconnected from work). The number one way to disconnect is to remove all temptation to answer messages while out-of-office (OOO).

Encourage your employees to create an automatic OOO message (here’s how to set one up in Gmail). Vacationing employees may still get messages from coworkers and customers, but now people will know not to expect a response. 

Your employees can even delegate someone to answer any concerns while they’re OOO. Their message can say something simple like “getting sunburned until June 14. Reach out to <this person> at <name@email.com>.” (Just remember to give coworkers a heads up about these assignments.)

Have your employees deactivate their Slack notifications, so they aren’t tempted to check their messages for internal communication. And have them set their status to show that they’re away (here at Trainual, we use the palm tree emoji as code for “on vacation”). 

Slack set notification - vacationing palm emoji

Employees should keep their status as unavailable and their notifications off until they come back to the office. 

And encourage employees to set all of their work apps to “do not disturb” mode. If they feel tempted to log back on, encourage them to fully log off and delete any work apps from their phone. 

When they’re back, they can re-download the apps and log back in. Asana is an example of a great task management platform that makes logging off super easy.

There is rarely going to be a problem that can’t wait until your employee is back. But if it’s urgent, chances are good that the answers you need will be in your documentation. 

And if it’s not there for whatever reason, ask around the office. But only contact your OOO employee as a last resort.

Just Seconds gif - Out of Office followed by rollerblades

Hold teammates accountable for their vacation time 

Your employees should be completely logged off from all of their platforms while on vacation. But before they log off, make sure they’ve prepared their team. 

When your employees request their PTO, ask them to leave detailed updates on their current projects. They can leave their notes in task management software like Asana so that the information is easily accessible to their team.

A few days before your employee goes offline, have them delegate their daily responsibilities while they’re out. And follow up with your employee with any questions you have about their responsibilities before they leave. 

If you see your employee online during their vacation, kick them off – respectfully, of course. Remind them to use their vacation as the opportunity to fully disconnect from work. And reassure them that their responsibilities are being taken care of. 

It’s up to you as the business leader to keep reinforcing the importance of going fully offline! The best practice to enforce relaxation time among your employees is to have them request their next PTO when they return from a vacation. That way, there’s always vacation time booked.

In the first week of Q4, remind your team to use any remaining PTO before it runs out. When your employees take the time to rest away from the high-stress environment of work, they can prevent burnout. And they can recharge in preparation for a strong start to the new year.

Plus, having employees request PTO at the beginning of Q4 will give you time to plan for coverage during the end of the year. Holidays are a popular time for employees to take vacations, and you want to have time to plan accordingly.

Lead by example

As a business owner, you work in some pretty stressful situations, and you need recharging too. And by taking a vacation, you show your employees that taking time off is definitely encouraged. 

Our very own CEO, Chris Ronzio, leads by example. He goes fully offline when he takes time off. And when he logs back on after a family vacation, Chris always shares what he did. This way, the whole team knows that it’s okay to completely disconnect. Doing so can lead to some relaxing experiences. 

The Office gif - Michael Scott brb

Since the boss has no problem taking time off, neither will your team. Plus, you can lead the way when it comes to requesting time off and delegating your tasks so the business can continue to run smoothly. 

When you delegate your responsibilities to your employees for when you’re OOO, your team knows what is expected of them while you’re gone. They won’t have to bother you, and you won’t be checking off assignments from your hotel room. 

You deserve a chance to relax away from the stress of running a business. And when your employees see you taking time off, they’ll be inclined to do the same.

Encourage a culture of work-life balance

Your employees taking time off and actually enjoying it boils down to how your company views vacation time. Companies that don’t encourage taking time off can have limited PTO policies. Or they allow employees to work for months and months without taking time off. 

This way of thinking is a dangerous game to play with your employees’ mental and physical health. That’s because the never-ending hustle of 60+ hours a week seems good in theory (many even brag about it). But, in reality, it leads to overworked, burnt-out employees. 

And the irony is avoiding burnout starts with people taking PTO. If your policy doesn’t encourage employees to use their time off, odds are they won’t. 

It’s easier to manage work when we take time off. Meaning, when we take PTO and have the proper amount of time to recharge, we’re more likely to come back with better concentration and more focus for work.

So, if your company rewards workaholics by praising them for their nonstop work ethic, you might want to rethink your company culture. 

Reinforce the need to end the workday after 8 hours, so people have the proper amount of time to relax before the next workday rolls around. And remind employees of the benefits of taking vacation time.

We want to reset the expectation from “take a spa day now and then” to completely disconnecting from work every day at 5 pm and taking a few days off per month. Then, hold your team (and yourself) to that standard.

Let’s be honest. Your team works just as hard as you do, and you all deserve time off. We know the benefits of taking PTO – and it’s up to business leaders to remind our employees to take time off.

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