Company Culture, HR Best Practices

Vacation Transparency: PTO Is Not a Dirty Word

Vacation time, PTO, OOO, mental health days, whatever you want to call them — they’re crucial to your employees’ well-being. In fact, employees rank time off as their second favorite benefit contributing to their satisfaction, just after health insurance, according to Glassdoor.

And it’s good for business, too. A study by O.C. Tanner found that of the two-thirds of respondents who said they regularly take a vacation of at least a week during the summer months, 70 percent return to work highly motivated; compared with only 55 percent of those who say they are highly motivated sans the vacay. In companies where taking vacation time is encouraged, 86 percent of employees are happier, says a 2018 study by the U.S. Travel Association.

Identify Blockers to PTO Use

However, nearly 41 percent of Americans didn’t take even one vacation in 2015, according to a Glassdoor publication. And of those who did? A whopping 17 percent said they took fewer than five days. That equates to 658 million unused vacation days. For some perspective, Brazilians take an average of 30 vacation days a year. So why are so many U.S. workers not actually taking the PTO that they specifically asked for?

Employees have their reasons, which range from too much work, work FOMO, fear of pending layoffs or missed promotions, and guilt and workplace pressures, according to a 2018 survey by The Ladders. But when employees don’t take their PTO, they have increased burnout, lower productivity, and a greater risk of depression. So how do we create a PTO-friendly culture that is supportive of vacation transparency?

Create a PTO-Positive Culture

For one thing, companies can actually open a dialogue encouraging time off. And they’ve started. A survey found that 38 percent of companies encouraged vacation in 2018 compared with 33 last year. That’s all well and good, but at the end of the day, it’s not about HR’s policy — it’s about streamlining and automating the PTO process so employees are empowered (and enabled) to actually take the time off.

What are the issues surrounding people being out of the office? In order to support employees’ unplugging, the structure needs to be already laid out so they can actually do that. For example, what are the required steps that need to be followed so that things get efficiently taken care of while you’re away? You want everyone to know that you are offline, and for how long; you want to be undisturbed; and you want the workflow to not be interrupted. Properly following these steps and policies ensures that you get to recharge your batteries, without worrying about what’s going on with your projects back at the office.

Management Walks the Walk

A PTO friendly culture is best built from the top down. Managers should encourage their employees to take time off, setting expectations about responding to emails and calls during their vacations (don’t do it) and using out-of-office replies to handle the influx of Slack messages and emails. Make sure the employee has set up coverage for her projects and accounts so she can relax knowing it is being addressed by another colleague.

To curb the hesitation that some may feel when it comes to using their days, managers should set an example by using their PTO days. In doing so, they’re creating a culture that shows that everyone can and should be taking vacations. And since Americans don’t actually start enjoying their vacation until four days in, you need to make a point of actually taking a full week, not just a long weekend — and be sure to fully unplug.

It’s also essential to help make those vacation days possible. Effective people management revolves around letting employees know the best times to take their vacations (do you have a slow season?). Send around a schedule so everyone can sign up for their days off. Monitor employee out-of-office time via PTO trackers or leave of absence software, and make sure managers check in at 1:1s to ask how their direct reports plan to use their days this quarter.

Play PTO Hardball

Or, in a move that may seem contradictory, get more strict around PTO. Enlist management to enforce PTO policies, with a minimum required number of days that must be taken by certain check-in points (say, quarterly). Explain that the reason why you’re changing the policy is specifically to encourage people to use their time off so employees don’t perceive it as a punishment.

Similarly, HR can play their role by adding PTO line items into employee performance appraisals. This reinforces it as official policy rather than just a discretionary task a manager might administer at staff meetings or 1:1s. Having a “target” number of days would frame this metric on the level of any other aspect of employee performance that must be fulfilled. The new corporate refrain becomes: “Taking care of yourself as an individual is all in a day’s work as an employee at our company, after all.”

In order to create a PTO-Friendly culture, be sure to take the most direct approach: address the roadblocks to employee PTO buy-in, create a pro-PTO environment from the top down, and engage managers to model good vacation behavior themselves. It’s important to use these methods — as well as continue to pioneer new approaches to vacation transparency and PTO-positivity — to course correct the serious problem of unused time off that is rampant (and contagious) among today’s American workers.

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About Kevin Corliss

Kevin is CEO and co-founder of Treehoppr where he's in charge of strategy and marketing. Kevin is an outdoor enthusiast and travel addicted. Contact him via email at