It's become a trope in popular discussions about the modern world: people are overworked.
This bears out not just anecdotally but also in the maxims espoused by successful business figures. Take for instance the example of Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who recently praised the concept of the 12-hour work day in a blog post.
Moreover, the option to take paid time off (PTO) from work is unevenly distributed in the U.S. According to 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least 70% of American private industry workers had access to paid holiday, vacation and sick leave time. But only 43% had access to paid personal leave, and only 15% had access to dedicated paid family leave.
PTO isn't just an attractive benefit. It also may be a performance-enhancer. HR software provider Namely, in an August 2017 report, found through a data analysis of more than 125,000 employees that high-performing workers took five extra days of PTO compared to their lower-performing counterparts.
Though managerial wisdom (also, plain common sense) suggests HR should encourage employees to take time off — whether for life events like childbirth or just a summer vacation — workers don't always do so. In fact, workers might forego time off, or to take less time off than recommended, for any number of reasons, management experts told HR Dive.
Fear of the unknown
Employees feel both verbal and non-verbal pressure to curb their plans to take time off, Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner at Mercer, told HR Dive in an interview. There may be worries about how colleagues react to an absence, he said, but workers might also feel anxious about what leave might do to their job arrangement: For example, "If I take this leave that you say is perfectly fine, am I going to have the same cool assignments and projects?"
That fear isn't necessarily limited to keeping one's job, however. Research from Working Mother Media showed a majority of both men and women surveyed believed in the existence of a "motherhood penalty," a situation in which pay and promotion opportunities suffer due to an individual's decision to take maternity leave. In one 2018 lawsuit, for example, a female executive claimed to have received negative performance ratings after telling her employer that she was pregnant.
For Anne Donovan, people experience leader at PwC US, it's not so much that the company's employees feel uncomfortable taking PTO. Rather, she told HR Dive in an interview, it's a matter of whether they can be "spared" from their work on teams and projects. "That I think is always on people's minds," Donovan said.
A leader's example
HR personnel can work to counteract the problem, but being personally involved in every manager-employee relationship can make things messy. For one thing, managers don't field questions about PTO every day, Fuerstenberg said, so it's more effective for HR teams to focus on reminding them about the organization's policies and the support systems available both to those taking leave and those still at the office.
Still, HR shouldn't be too hands-off. A simple statement on a company's website or intranet that it offers six weeks of paid leave won't cut it, Fuerstenberg said, and one solution won't work for every company. "I think it's a combination of things," he added; "the employee-employer relationship is just part of that." Managers should be trained on the policies and guidelines around handling leave, but also should be prepared to backfill. Getting backfill wrong can seriously harm PTO structures, Fuerstenberg said. Donovan said PwC's teams address the backfill problem by taking a collaborative approach, like ensuring team members schedule their vacations around each other's ahead of time, for example.
Both Fuerstenberg and Donovan agreed that executives are important to ensuring workers are comfortable taking the time off they need. Rank-and-file employees, after all, likely don't have access to the same kinds of caregiving resources that members of the C-suite do, Fuerstenberg said. So while it's important, he said, for PTO policies to build in flexibility, leaders should have a hand in promoting these policies to raise visibility to those who need them.
"If you're going to announce a senior leader is a new parent, make it known that they're going to take that leave," Fuerstenberg said.
Similarly, Donovan noted PwC's practice of holding firm-wide town halls twice a year in which CEO Tim Ryan asks attendees directly: have you booked your vacation yet? It's important to ensure consistency in the internal communications around PTO, too, Donovan said. HR and management shouldn't be giving mixed signals. "We do our best to empower our HR people from the top to ensure that HR is not messaging something that isn't being voiced at the top."
Rolling out your next PTO plan
Employers are increasingly looking to different types of leave in the bid to attract talent, Fuerstenberg said, including making paid sick leave more flexible. But when it comes to setting a number of PTO days as part of a new benefit, employers need to rely on their internal data, he said.
Using a combination of HRIS, disability and other data, HR teams can determine the typical need for leave among job categories and roles. The trickier part of this process is determining the true replacement labor cost, Fuerstenberg said. This also is heavily dependent on job class and category; for example, employers may not completely backfill management roles, but others might require backfill 100% of the time. "What works for managers and corporate may not work as well for a distribution or call center," Fuerstenberg said.
Employers likely will want to pilot new programs to work out any wrinkles before a company-wide rollout, Donovan said. PwC, for example, is in the process of testing a "4x4x24" model of flexible work with some of its client services teams. Members in the pilot spend four days with their clients and leave on Fridays at 4 p.m., and they're told to ensure they have at least 24 hours off every certain number of days. It's a process that has involved a lot of discussion with teams to ensure the policy is working for members.
"We always have that discussion," she said. "We don't put something in place that is so bold that two to three years down the road we would have to pull it back."
Employers also should enlist legal counsel to help train managers on leave policies, be it for a PTO policy or for a federally-mandated leave type, Lindsey Conrad Kennedy, associate at the law firm Eckert Seamans, told HR Dive in an interview.
Employers also might want to have ample written communications about the policies themselves as well as a general attitude of "the more communication the better" when it comes to employee-manager interactions around leave, Conrad Kennedy said.
How much is too much?
While unlimited policies have made headlines in the HR world, attorneys have been quick to warn employers about the potential legal troubles surrounding unlimited PTO. Attorneys who previously spoke with HR Dive voiced concerns about the potential for abuse as well as the complications of dealing with accrued PTO when changing over to such a system.
Conrad Kennedy doesn't recommend such policies either; "There are a lot of pitfalls that can really serve as traps for the unwary," she said. One question helps put the policy in perspective: What does "unlimited" even mean? Taking an excessive number of days off under an unlimited system could risk stunting collaboration and employee development, Conrad Kennedy said.
However, PTO need not be unlimited to cause headaches. For a period of roughly three years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offered 52 weeks of paid parental leave. In February, the foundation announced it was cutting the program in half amid concerns that it had become too disruptive. In some cases, according to foundation CHRO Steven Rice, who wrote about the decision in a LinkedIn post, the organization had to hire backfills for the backfill talent that had been filling in for employees on leave.
For Fuerstenberg, the Gates Foundation's example brought to mind his own approach when working with clients. "Our typical guidance is to start small and always leave room to grow," he said. But even the most careful planning or piloting won't be able to predict every obstacle. "Once you make these policies go live, you never know quite what to expect."
PwC's Donovan said the firm relies on its piloting philosophy to avoid having to roll back things in the long run. "We would do anything we could not to have to pull back a policy."