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Why PTO is not enough during the pandemic

Instead of passing off paid time off as an optional activity, think of it as a new cornerstone to remote work.

Why PTO is not enough during the pandemic
[Source Photo: Morgan Housel/Unsplash]

When I moved from Europe to the United States as an adult years ago, one of the first shocks I experienced was the standard three-to-six vacation was not an American norm.

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Therefore, when it came to founding my own company, it was imperative to create a business  that reflected the core values and purpose that I strongly believe in. As the company grew (with a focus on sound leadership tactics), we made sure that our PTO policy reflected our belief that more work does not mean better work, and that downtime and thinking time are essential to success and well-being. Our company culture has been focused on thriving both as individuals and as an organization from the get-go. We have always believed that taking a real break from work is an absolute must. It was important to choose a solution that was both good for a diverse group of people and good for the company.

We have team members from many countries and of several generations. Some don’t have families yet, others have school-aged children or young adults to think of. Some live within driving distance of extended family and others must fly for 16 hours or more to see their families. People had planned longer trips to visit their families that would have to be delayed for quite some time.

Our leadership team immediately made the decision to amend company policy on rollover dates and ensure that team members who had planned longer trips to visit distant family members wouldn’t lose the ability to take these trips when it was safe to travel. It was also very clear to us that not only did we think our people should take PTO during the pandemic, but we felt they needed a break even more now than during normal times.

It might not be feasible or safe to hop on a plane or carry on with normal time-off activities, but even with a staycation, workers must find ways to recharge and take a true break.

Burnout and stress levels are sky-rocketing and people are working longer hours.  On average, employees are now working an extra 48.5 minutes per day.  While companies may not be at the office, working from home distinctly does not feel like a break from work. People dealing with homeschooling kids, increased workloads due to competing priorities, as well as sub-optimal working conditions with lack of a good home office setup are in more need of a break than ever before.

As leaders we may not realize the magnitude of the stressors that our people are under. These unprecedented new challenges—which for many people are greater than those they have dealt with throughout their lives—are layered on to existing stress levels that were often already high.

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At my company, we have been questioning the way leaders and managers work for many years. Our world has changed, but people still tend to approach their days in the same old ways. PTO is not enough. There are fundamental changes that are needed to create a work environment where people have time to think, innovate and above all ensure they are making strategic choices on what their current priorities should be.

Try to take mini “timeouts” during the workday. These breaks can be as brief as 10-15 minutes. Another stand-by technique of remote work is taking a quick walk. Use a few minutes to breathe and re-center, or simply stretching and disconnecting from the screen for a short while can reduce stress levels, increase clarity of thinking, and lead to better outcomes for all.

A good way to approach implementing this is to agree as a team that in our new work environment we should adopt new habits that will increase well-being and performance. Many workers feel pressure to demonstrate they’re actively working, accessible, and demonstrating productivity. One suggestion to overcome these pressures? Discuss and pinpoint a break-time concept, such as the aforementioned mini timeouts, and agree upon it. If the company arrives at a specific concept, people can make this choice more freely and not have the adverse effect of feeling stressed-out when the need for a brief reprieve or time off arises.

So, instead of passing off PTO as a relatively nonessential activity, rather think of it as another PTO: “Please Take Time Off.” In our new world, a refreshing break—no matter how bite-sized—is critical.


Janeen Gelbart is CEO and co-founder of Indiggo, a technology platform that creates AI-powered solutions to lead managers and enterprises to greater return.

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