The pandemic disrupted employers’ paid time off policies, but two years later, a recently published study shows the problem may have only grown worse.
Results from a July survey of U.S. adults by PTO solutions provider Sorbet found that 55% of PTO went unused by employees, compared to 28% in 2019. In all, the company said 57% of workers left PTO on the table this year, compared to 37% in 2019.
That unused PTO translated into a real monetary cost for workers, too. Sorbet estimated that the average employee held $3,000 in unused accrued PTO.
“We tend to think of PTO in terms of time, [but] people often don’t realize is that there’s a dollar and cents implication in your compensation when you accrue PTO,” Veetahl Eilat-Raichel, Sorbet’s CEO, said in an interview. “And when you don’t take it, you essentially end up with a hard-earned portion of your compensation locked up and unavailable to you.”
The vendor’s findings seem to mesh with those of other organizations. In August, Eagle Hill Consulting announced survey results that showed 42% of U.S. workers had not taken a vacation in the past year, though not all workers in the cohort reported having access to PTO.
The impact of flexible work
More than two years after COVID-19 created shutdowns and wreaked havoc on employers’ accrual systems, Eilat-Raichel said employers still have difficult questions to consider with respect to how their organizations handle time off, such as whether to adopt policies that group all PTO into one bucket and allow workers agency to choose how to use their time, or create separate buckets.
But as far as employees’ lack of willingness to take time off, the pandemic may have only highlighted a pre-existing problem. “Partially, this trend of not taking time off is deeply rooted in culture,” Eilat-Raichel said. “It has to do with the fear of the optics of it [and] being seen as unprofessional or less committed.”
Employees felt even less legitimacy to take time off with the advent of remote work, she added, because of the ways in which life activities and events bled into the work day.
Few trends are perhaps as reflective of this sentiment as the “workcation,” described in a March BBC article as a trend in which employees who are able to work from anywhere combine elements of a vacation with a workday in an exotic locale.
As excited as employees may be at the thought of cliff diving in between days spent working on a laptop, a recent Visier survey found that employees who worked while on vacation were more likely to quit their jobs than those who disconnected. The firm also found in a separate 2021 survey that one-third of employees felt pressured to check in with their jobs during vacation — while many respondents described vacation as a mere temporary relief from burnout.
What can HR do?
HR cannot solve the unused PTO problem by itself, Eilat-Raichel said. Instead, departments will need to work with leadership and management to address the cultural component involved. That could start with a baseline of ensuring employees have the time they need to take care of themselves, and then ensuring that leaders model the behavior they want to see from workers.
“If the general sentiment is that you need to always be on in order to perform, that’s not going to work,” Eilat-Raichel said.
Having access to the right data also may help. Eilat-Raichel said she is seeing employers track PTO use and include it as part of employees’ performance reviews so that managers can follow up on the subject.
Employers also may need to be aware of the inequities inherent in PTO availability and use. Sorbet, for instance, found that male employees received 10% more PTO days on average than women, and that men took 33% more days off than women.
Since the start of the pandemic, employers have experimented with enhanced PTO policies on a small scale. Google announced in February that it would implement a minimum of 20 vacation days for employees alongside expanded caregiving leaves. Others, like Hootsuite, have taken companywide weeks off with the aim of addressing burnout and mental health issues.
PTO can be an expensive and difficult benefit to administer, but the fact that workers let their time off go underutilized and unused “almost does the exact opposite of what PTO was originally intended to do,” Eilat-Raichal said. “There’s so much to be unlocked by this incredible benefit that you already have.”