How to Harness the Power of Your PTO Policies

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Work-life balance can be key to higher personal satisfaction and higher job performance. One aspect of this is how time off is viewed. My first job out of college was in Denmark where I benefitted from a number of workplace policies informed by the social welfare state, including paid time off. I had 25 days of paid vacation time, unlimited sick time, and on the rare occasion that I needed to work outside of normal work hours, I was given flex time to make up for it. I was frequently encouraged to use that vacation and sick time and, as a result, did not feel guilty when I did. Likewise, it was not uncommon for colleagues to be away on vacation for several weeks at a time; they were simply using the paid time off provided to them and nobody was going to instill a sense of guilt in them for doing so. This is normal in Denmark and the Danish corporate culture supports it.

In the United States we do not have mandated paid time off, so the number of days employees are able to earn varies widely, with many earning none. There are often reports of employees leaving paid time off unused out of fear of being replaced, left behind, or simply being perceived as not working hard enough, despite the fact that time off from work would help their productivity when they are at work.

With this mindset in place, it is a challenge for individual companies in the United States to voluntarily implement and ‘enforce’ generous paid time off policies. Even if the culture within the company is successful in supporting paid time off, clients and outside collaborators come from a variety of other workplace cultures; given the uneven playing field between different types of jobs and different industries, some will inevitably not be so understanding.

Shifting this mindset is a huge undertaking, but there are small steps companies can take to contribute to change:

  • Encourage employees to use all of their vacation time and to stay home when they are unwell. It is not enough to simply state this is the company handbook. This encouragement must be reiterated verbally at every opportunity in order to ingrain this in the company culture.
  • When employees take time off, focus on the positive. Saying “good for them” rather than focusing on any temporary inconveniences their absence may cause will help dispel any feelings of guilt.
  • Vacation is for ‘vacating.’ Remind employees to set away messages and to leave work behind. Except in extraordinary circumstances employees should not check in with work while they are taking time off.
  • Company leaders play a significant role in setting the tone of a company’s culture. In order for leaders to truly empower their employees they must set an example and follow their own advice.

At White + Burke we have taken this advice to heart and always encourage employees to use paid time off when we need it. We have several progressive policies including generous paid vacation time, which increases the longer an employee has been with the company, substantial paid parental leave for both women and men, paid volunteer time, and flexible work schedules. We are a small company, so the absence of just one person can mean something must be put off until their return. Despite this, we encourage each other to use our paid time off because White + Burke’s philosophy is rooted in work-life balance. I know I will not be judged or deemed not to be working hard enough by my colleagues just because I am using up the vacation time I am entitled to as an employee of White + Burke.

One of my most important takeaways from my experience working in Denmark was that attitude is very important. I always felt it was okay to take time off when I needed it, which played a huge role in keeping me motivated. It was much easier to be productive and stay focused during especially busy periods because of the promise of an opportunity to recharge and ‘recover.’ Similarly, at White + Burke, I am encouraged to use all of my vacation days and I know when I get sick I will be encouraged (expected) to stay home. A company can have a very generous paid time off policy on paper, but if employees are not encouraged to make use of it, nobody benefits. Work-life balance benefits everyone.