Americans are notorious for leaving paid time off on the table, with only 28% maxing out their available days during normal times. The pandemic only made it worse. About half of us canceled 2020 summer vacation plans. It’s no surprise. Fewer people are willing to get on planes and travel restrictions have limited our options. But does that mean you need to skip PTO completely?
“Time off doesn’t have to mean taking your annual vacation,” says Andrew Shatté, cofounder and chief knowledge officer of meQuilibrium, a science-based resilience training provider. “You may be thinking, ‘I’m not going to fly and don’t want to vacation somewhere close, so why bother?’ But grabbing a few days can make a big difference.”
Many employees decided to cancel their PTO and work instead, says Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer of the people management platform Hibob. “However, vacation days are earned and part of your benefits package,” she says. “They’re something that you should be taking advantage of—and not feeling guilty about.”
Why it’s important
It can be hard to draw a distinction between work and personal time when you’re working from home. Unfortunately, this can contribute to stress.
“We watched the journey during the pandemic,” says Staples. “In the beginning, many of us were grateful to have a job. But six months of working from home is causing burnout and hurting work-life balance. More than ever, you need time off to take care of your mental wellbeing. It has a significant impact on productivity and creativity.”
How much time to take
How you structure your time off will depend on your company and your role, says Staples. “We’ve seen a trend in taking extended weekends as opposed to two-week periods off,” she says. “It’s possible to reboot in a small amount of time, such as taking a Friday and Monday.”
Taking shorter amounts of time can also help relieve the burden you may feel you’re leaving for your colleagues as many companies may be working with smaller teams after layoffs or furloughs. “Think about how your work is going to get done,” says Staples. “Make sure there are systems and mechanisms to manage PTO effectively.”
What to do
Time off can be used in many ways that don’t involve travel. Many workers are juggling extra responsibilities at home, such as homeschooling children or taking care of aging parents. A few days away from work can allow you to catch up and create a sense of balance.
“Maybe it’s simply a day you don’t work and you devote to yourself,” says Shatté. “Maybe it’s just reading a book or watching movie. Or maybe it’s a day to devote to your kids, so you feel better when you can’t be 100% present the rest of the week. Be mindful in the moment and shut out thoughts about work. We can get personal time off even when you’re not leaving house.”
“Time off should be used to do something that enriches your own life,” adds Staples. “By shutting off from work, you can focus on other things. It could be taking a couple of days to go hiking in nature at a nearby place. It could be learning a new skill. It’s also a great time to do home projects you never had time to do. The best thing to do during your PTO could be something different for everyone.”
Leaders need to communicate that it’s okay to take PTO, says Shatté.
“A lot of employees are very worried about taking time off,” he says. “They might think it could undermine their job security. Or they worry about being disconnected at all. It doesn’t help anyone to be connected all of the time. It doesn’t help engagement or loyalty. Organizations need to set new ground rules and structure so that people aren’t at risk for burnout. Make it clear it’s okay to take PTO.”
A day or two away may be all you need to feel refreshed and ready to contribute. “Time off is something you earned,” says Staples. “The intention is to recharge and rejuvenate. Recharging your battery can have a big impact on he quality of your work and your life.”