tired employee

All Work and No PTO Makes Organizations Less Productive

More than 40% of U.S. workers are passing on an average of 3.2 PTO days a year, according to a study by the U.S. Travel Association and SHRM. Why should that set off alarms in HR? Because a lot of the metrics HCM professionals are tasked with supporting are bolstered by this important element of an employee's total compensation--including overall productivity.

Lower health care cost, increased innovation, morale, retention and engagement are all byproducts of this resource that's already budgeted for and is sitting on your corporate balance sheet as a liability. What's more, identifying where in the organization unused PTO is most common provides insights into unhealthy culture issues, pipeline shortfalls, turnover hotspots and other strategic workforce planning weaknesses before they become crippling.

Supporting work-life balance among employees pays. The connection here isn't fuzzy or difficult to understand. But though well recognized, only about a third of employees surveyed say their employers encourage them to use their time. What's worse, an equal number report that their employers discourage leave, with 17% of managers admitting to labeling employees who do use all leave as less dedicated. Let's be honest--who's taking vacation in a weak job market if by doing so your sending the message that you're not all that dedicated to your job?

More than overcoming perceptions

So, apparently cashing in your agreed-upon compensation makes you a less dedicated employee in some organizations. Does this attitude simply derive from an outdated perception confusing presenteeism with engagement? Partially. Most now realize that time away from work is important, but when there's more work than workers the stresspuppy operating model tends to auto engage. If not for excess workloads, a simple top-down message encouraging use of PTO--and making clear that leaving compensation on the table isn't going to score points--would do the trick.

The study observes that four in ten U.S. workers say their employer supported time off, but their heavy workload kept them from using their earned days. For workforce planning professionals, this should be an indication that business as usual isn't secure. If vacation time can't be fit in to work schedules, imagine what even a minor uptick in turnover or additional business could do. The solution could be as simple as more creative or controlled scheduling policies, but it may indicate a more systemic problem.

Pushing the PTO

Too many employees too busy to use their PTO should be an indicator for workforce planners. Though it may not signify need for immediate additional FTEs, it could indicate the need for a stronger talent pipeline or plan to deal with unexpected turnover in those areas of your organization. Before raising alarms, however, try the suggestions below for encouraging PTO use:

  • Consistent top-down communication. Don't say you encourage use of PTO then only reward or promote those who don't use it--and make sure that's clear as the message trickles down. Mixed messages from leadership are a sure way to frustrate and alienate--the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish.
  • Make it a team exercise. Who can go on vacation knowing that a truckload of work is continuously dumping onto their desk while they're gone? Coordinating vacation calendars can be a good starting point for encouraging teamwork, cross-training and promoting a more resilient workforce. Trusting co-workers to have your back--or trusting them to your backlog of work--can build both camaraderie and capacity.
  • Limit the amount of PTO that can roll over. Use-it-or-lose-it doesn't have to be absolute, but requiring at least two weeks be used before a worker can cash out on their remaining PTO balance emphasizes organizational commitment, while taking the decision out of the hands of managers or workaholic employees..
  • Work with managers to come up with scheduling solutions. Front-line managers are often burdened with maximum accountability and given limited support. Make sure they have an outlet when meshing work goals with PTO schedules, and know when the situation calls for a workforce planner or strategic business partner to evaluate optimal capacity.

Is unused PTO an issue in your organization? What creative ways has your organization used to balance workloads with time off needs?

Eric Davis
Eric received his master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Marshall University in 1996. He has had 20+ years of workforce experience in a variety of fields. Before coming to i4cp, he worked as a laboratory technician for DuPont, a conference planner for Marshall University, the public relations manager for the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Technical Manufacturing, and a graphic designer for COX Communications.