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The importance of ‘paid time out’: why it matters so much

Are your employees navigating the stress and guilt of taking Paid Time Off (PTO)? First step is to think of it as Paid Time Out. Discover why the importance of PTO goes beyond personal relaxation — it’s vital for your employees' productivity and workplace wellness. This article breaks down the psychology behind PTO anxiety and offers actionable insights for leaders.

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe

“Why bother if it’s going to cause more stress than it’s worth?”

“I have so much on my plate; I can’t afford to take time off right now.”

“I have a hard time relaxing and fully disconnecting from work.”

“What if everything falls apart when I’m not here?”

“I feel like I’m expected to be available all the time – even on my days off.”

“There’s no one who can cover for me while I’m away.”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Taking time off has become a stressful process. Paid Time Off or what I like to call Paid Time Out – and the anxiety associated with time away is real. And the stakes are high – for employees and their leaders and the cost for not taking a ‘time out’ is dangerous for productivity and wellness.

Related: Working Hours, PTO and Vacation policy template

Anxiety Before PTO

With so many employees experiencing overwork and overwhelm on a regular basis, even just the thought of taking time off can be a stressor. Fear and anxiety may arise from the idea of requesting time off, particularly if the absence may inconvenience others or if the workplace culture does not support work-life balance.

Not knowing how it will be perceived can lead to concerns about job security or job loss, ultimately holding some individuals back from taking time off.

Unfortunately, many employees feel that they have too much work or too many responsibilities to even take time off. Worries about the tasks that may accumulate during an absence are common.

We sometimes even feel pressured to stay and work if there are ongoing projects or if there is inadequate coverage. Many of us feel guilty and don’t want to burden our colleagues by adding to their workload.

Manage time off

Effortlessly manage your employees’ PTO within Workable’s HR software – which is fully integrated within our recruiting software at no added cost.

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What you can do as a leader

Leaders have a key role in cultivating a safe, supportive, and accommodating work environment for everyone. A company culture that values work-life balance and promotes self-stewardship and the use of PTO can help to address some of the barriers and ensure that everyone is taking the time off that they need and deserve.

Creating an open dialogue around concerns and anxieties about taking time off, assisting in finding coverage, and being flexible and willing to redistribute tasks can alleviate a lot of undue stress. This can also help shift our mindset from “I” to “we.”

Anxiety During and After PTO

The truth is that some people may struggle with disconnecting from work during their time off. We are so used to being busy that it can be hard to slow down. In a survey conducted by Elvtr of 2,300 workers from the U.S. and Canada, 46% reported struggling to switch off from work while on vacation and 68% admitted to working on their time off.

We have grown so hyper-connected that it can be difficult to set boundaries, avoid checking emails, and resist the urge to stay involved with work.

Anxiety about re-entry after PTO can closely resemble the Sunday Scaries (anticipatory anxiety and feelings of dread experienced on the eve of a workweek) but on a much greater scale depending on the amount of time taken off. The full inboxes, tasks, and responsibilities that await can be overwhelming.

With feelings of being behind or out of touch with ongoing projects, paired with the belief that we need to prove our dedication or productivity upon return, it can be challenging to know how to effectively get back on track. Readjusting to the work routine can take some time.

What you can do as a leader

It is important to be mindful of the shadow cultures and narratives in our workplace. If we are answering emails on our days off, it can send the message that our team members are expected to as well. We need consistency between what we say and what we do. By modeling a healthy work-life balance and respecting the boundaries of others, leaders create the invitation for others to do the same.

Being aware of the expectations and pressures we are putting on employees is also important. To ease anxiety upon an employee’s return, leaders can allow time for them to adjust gradually, take time to check in, and make clear the support that is available.

Encouraging PTO

We are seeing people in the workplace doing too much for too long. They are exhausted. I can tell you that sacrificing our own health and wellness is not sustainable. The cost will become much higher. Burnout is a real condition that happens when there is nothing left in the tank, and we go into debt with our own self-care.

In a 2023 survey conducted by Pew Research Center of more than 5,000 working Americans, 89% of workers reported it being extremely or very important that their employer offers paid time off for vacations, doctor appointments, and minor illnesses.

Related: What is unlimited PTO and how does it work?

In the same survey, 46% said they take off less time than they are entitled to. Despite the importance placed upon having this PTO available to them, this means that nearly half of workers are not taking all of their PTO.

You want to encourage your teams to take the time they need to take care of themselves so they can continue to do the good work that you hired them to do. Your wellness and company success depends on it.

You want to encourage your teams to take the time they need to take care of themselves so they can continue to do the good work that you hired them to do. Your wellness and company success depends on it.

Even framing PTO as a ‘time out’ is often helpful. Knowing that you need to rest, recover and get back into the work pace is essential. You cannot realistically be ‘game ready’ every single day. Take the rest and re-enter with more focus, energy and clarity, which is only possible when you take that time out first.

People feel valued and respected when they feel as though their workplace supports employee well-being. Companies that promote and encourage team members to take their PTO foster a positive workplace where individuals can prioritize self-care and enjoy a healthy work-life balance. This can improve team morale, contribute to higher job satisfaction and employee engagement, and help prevent burnout.

Research consistently shows that taking regular breaks and vacations is essential for our physical and mental health. One nine-year study found that there are cardiovascular health benefits of taking more frequent annual vacations. Taking a step back from work can allow us the space to rest, recover, recharge, and return to work with renewed energy and motivation. When we feel well-rested and less stressed, our mood, focus, and productivity tend to improve.

The reality is that these restorative effects of taking time off can present themselves whether we are away for two weeks or two days.

In this fast-paced society that praises productivity, busyness, and the relentless hustle-no-matter-the-cost mentality, it is important to remember that we are all human beings, not human doings at the end of the day.

In this fast-paced society that praises productivity, busyness, and the relentless hustle-no-matter-the-cost mentality, it is important to remember that we are all human beings, not human doings at the end of the day.

While the constant doing offers a sense of accomplishment and supports a belief that our lives have meaning and value, it’s not okay for us to be doing the work at the cost of our health and wellness. The time, space, and attention we give to our being can have a profound impact on the quality of our doing.

We need to take care of ourselves and our teams in a way that allows for a healthy integration of ‘being and doing’. Then we will see our people showing up as their best selves where and when it matters most.

There are plenty of time-off management tools to assist you in this direction.

Robyne Hanley-Dafoe is an education and psychology author, scholar and educator. Her newest book, Stress Wisely: How to Be Well in an Unwell World, was published in June of 2023.

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