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March 21, 2022
7 Minutes
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PTO since the Covid-19 Pandemic Began – It’s Complicated

Written by:
Adelyn Moody, PhD

Our own CEO and angel investor has been asking our head of HR the question that seems to be on a lot of people’s minds recently – “why aren’t people taking their PTO?” While there is a lot of speculation out there, this question is important for a few reasons.

Time Off is Important for Workers

To begin with, let’s establish the fact that workers actually taking their paid time off (PTO) is important. Moreover, people in the United States far before the Covid-19 pandemic have historically been really bad about not taking their PTO, even though they should (and know they should). As a quick reminder, few reasons everyone should be making sure to take PTO for themselves are:

  1. People are really, really burned out in a lot of cases, mental health concerns are on the rise, and people need to take some time off.
  2. Taking PTO regularly reinforces to companies that people need time off and that they (the company) should be investing in it.
  3. Taking PTO helps build and normalize a culture of well-being and highlights ways people are regularly caring for themselves.
  4. Taking PTO can help workers sustain productivity and actually lead to better performance!
  5. Perceived organizational support for well-being strategies, such as encouraging taking vacation or mental health wellness days, can reduce absenteeism and increase retention.

…Some research by the World Health Organization (WHO) even supports taking PTO and making sure to regularly balance your hours (e.g., not working more than 55 hours a week consistently) may be linked to some very important outcomes - such as DEATH because of work stress’ linkages to heart disease and stroke!

Most Common Barriers to Taking PTO

So, hopefully now you’re sold that taking PTO is important, but let’s circle back to that first question… why aren’t people taking more of it? It may not be what you could be afraid of (that people want more PTO)… in fact, 78 percent of people in a recent survey by Gallup recent stated that they were satisfied in the amount of time they had off.

Instead, some of the top reasons reported in a survey conducted by Glassdoor prior to the pandemic included fear of falling behind (34%), that no one else could do their job (30%), and about a quarter of people pre-pandemic didn’t want to take PTO because they feared it would make them look less dependable to their coworkers and less dedicated to their jobs.

Additional reasons people haven’t been taking PTO since the pandemic began are that workers (especially those working from home) report that they feared employers would judge them for taking a PTO day for anything “less severe” than being sick with Covid. This indicates that people have recalibrated just how sick they have to be before justifying it to themselves and their bosses. Additionally, workers may not have been taking time off since the pandemic hit because they feel that their travel options are limited or they were fearful that they may be laid off.

What You Can Do to Encourage PTO Usage

Recognize your Rockstars. Consider providing incentives for people who make it easier for their team members to take PTO. From account managers volunteering to take on additional desk coverage to team leaders who stay in the know about projects they aren’t directly in charge of, we all know individuals who go above and beyond with helping set up their team members to be able to take time off… consider ways to recognize or even formally motivate these people to continue engage in these sorts of organizational citizenship behaviors!  

Value Taking Time off as an Organization. For those who don’t already do these behaviors, make sure it’s clear from their job descriptions that it is expected and highly valuable to the team and organization that everyone makes sure to prioritize helping each other out in these ways. And while just saying it a few times won’t necessarily help encourage people to take PTO, having explicit messages consistently coming from c-suite and leadership encouraging the use of PTO certainly won’t hurt… even better, consider modeling healthy ways to take time off paired with consistent messaging about why its helpful for you and how you want it for your people as well!

Remind/Educate About Other Forms of Time Off. While educating your people about the HR policies of your organizational is likely an ongoing struggle, try and make sure people know that they likely have some options for unforeseen events other than having to use PTO for everything. In other words, if your company offers time off for parental leave, bereavement, elder/childcare, mental health days, training and development, Covid sick time for themselves and others, etc. (which you probably offer at least some of these!) remind folks of those options. If people are more aware of all of the ways you support them and that they have other options for taking time off, they are likely going to be less inclined to “hoard” PTO and actually put it towards positive, restorative things. Which, ultimately, is likely what will benefit your people the most!

Hire Appropriately. And finally, while the job market is tight right now and c-suite execs seem to often ask you to do more with fewer people, make sure if you’re in a position to control hiring that you are hiring enough people that the workload is manageable – and remember to budget workloads to include time off. This can mean hiring the person power necessary for what work you have going on or alternatively sometimes advocating for saying no to certain projects or extra work. With 41% of employed people indicating they regularly work over 40 hours a week, this point is especially important to emphasize. If people can work less than on 40+ hours a week, 52 weeks of the year, they will be more likely to take time off!


While PTO is a complicated topic, we hope this article helped shed a bit of light on why it’s important, barriers workers report on why they don’t take more of it, and a few suggestions on what you as a HR person or leadership at an organization can do to encourage your people to take more PTO!

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