Workers desperately need a break, and given recent economic trends, employers need to be very careful in how they handle time-off requests in the coming months.
The summer of 2021 is likely to see a huge spike in PTO requests as a result of a number of concurrent trends stemming from the pandemic. In the past year employees requested less time off, worked longer hours, and reported higher rates of stress and burnout. Now they want a breather.
According to a study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 41% of employed Americans feel burned out from their work, and 48% feel mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the workday. Another study conducted by Robert Half found that a quarter of workers forfeited paid time off in 2020, and a third intend to take three weeks or more of vacation time in 2021.
At the same time, however, now is a particularly challenging period for employers to find themselves shorthanded. As the economy gradually reopens, organizations are looking to the second half of 2021 to make up for lost time and lost revenue. To make matters even more difficult, according to a study conducted by Microsoft, 40% of workers are considering leaving their employer this year; organizations that ignore their employees’ needs could find themselves even further understaffed as a result.
“If you tell people ‘I can’t afford for any of you to leave,’ you run the risk of all of them leaving, because they burn out,” says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of SHRM.
According to another SHRM study, however, 74% of employers haven’t made any changes to their PTO policies in response to COVID-19. Of those who did, 34% are allowing staff to carry their vacation time over to next year and 16% are paying staff to void some of their vacation days.
“[During the pandemic] we were hearing about layoffs and furloughs, people were fearful of asking for time off, because the unemployment rate topped 15%, so people were like, ‘This is not the time to request PTO,'” Taylor says. “We saw employees not taking it, employers naively believing because you were working from home you wouldn’t need a vacation, and that created a perfect storm.”
Here’s how managers and employers can best handle the wave of PTO requests that is likely heading their way.
Seasonal staffing challenges are here already
Taylor says that this period of staffing shortages and paid time off is not unlike the holiday season, during which many industries struggle to balance an increase in holiday-related PTO requests and an increase in holiday-related demand.
“We know how to labor plan during the holiday surges,” he says. “Retailers know they need more employees at a time when a lot of people don’t want to work, which is the holiday season, so what do we need to put in place to fill those positions and make sure the business keeps running? It’s the same concept. . . . You need to sit down and be methodical, and approach it like you would any other part of your business.”
Use temporary staff to help fill in the gaps
Just as retailers utilize staffing agencies to hire temporary employees around the holiday season, employers should consider exploring similar temporary staffing solutions for managing employee PTO requests in the coming months.
“The gig economy could boom even more over the next 6 to 12 months, because it’s a way to offset people taking vacation at a lower cost than hiring full-time employees,” says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence. “The big benefit is it allows you to scale quickly without too much cost in order to meet business needs.”
However, Schawbel warns against leaning too heavily on summer interns to replace vacationing staff members. “You can’t just throw an intern into every position in the organization to let people take a vacation,” he says. “I think in some ways you’ll be better off to offset using a gig worker with more experience who can more readily and quickly take over a job temporarily or add support without much training.”
Automate as much as possible
This period of staffing instability could also be a good time for organizations to consider a digital transformation effort. Automating certain internal processes can make it easier for staff to leave without causing as much of a disruption, and to get up to speed upon their return.
“The right answer is not asking people to work more, or take less time off, it’s making it easier for them to do more in a shorter amount of time,” argues Zoe Clelland, vice president of product and experience at Nintex, a workflow automation solution.
Clelland explains that automation tools can be used to cover less-difficult tasks and direct requests and information around the absent staff member for more difficult ones. Similar to the way an automated out-of-office email reply typically provides the contact information of another team member who’s covering for their absent colleague, automation tools can forward requests and workflow processes to the right people.
“That tooling allows you to delegate, which means instead of it pinging you and asking you [while you’re on vacation], it knows who to go to, and if it doesn’t get an answer, it knows to ask your manager, so there is no loss of information or communication there,” she says.
Clelland adds that such tools can also help those returning from leave get up to speed more quickly. “When I come back, I want to know what got approved; I want to know what got rejected; I want to know who did it; what happened, without having to talk to 20 different people,” she says. “The best part of coming back into an automated workplace after PTO is that there’s documentation of everything that happened.”
Offer incentives strategically
According to the SHRM study, employers who are making changes to their PTO policies in response to an anticipated increase in demand are offering a number of incentives to keep staff from taking time off all at once. Taylor warns, however, that if they’re not careful, some incentive programs—such as buying back vacation days or letting staff carry them over to the next year—could lead to even higher rates of burnout.
“I need to give some caution there: Company leaders and HR professionals know there’s a cost to a workforce that doesn’t take a real vacation in more than a year,” he says. “Be careful with your plans. If you tell people ‘I’ll pay you,’ and someone needs the money and works through, you’ll see productivity and morale reduced, because the person burns out.”
Instead of creating incentive programs that discourage staff from taking any time off, Taylor says employers should work with their staff to craft policy changes that allow for some vacation time in the immediate future.
“It’s really important to clarify with employees how much time in advance you need to put in a request, what’s the maximum number of consecutive days, how many in a team can be off at once, those sorts of guidelines,” he says. “That way they understand this isn’t done to keep you from taking a holiday—we understand the need for you to have that—but we also need to run a business.”
Taylor explains that such guidelines, in conjunction with policies for buying back or rolling over leftover vacation days, will encourage staff to limit their holiday plans to the maximum amount of time off that’s necessary, rather than the maximum amount of time off that’s available.