Devin FosterJuly 21, 2020
Topics: Employee Experience

Using PTO During COVID-19: How to Encourage Employees to Recharge [Video]

It’s a little-discussed issue that could have a significant impact on employee productivity: PTO during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many employees have had to cancel vacations that involved travel; remote work has blurred the work/life balance... and it’s become hard to leave the office behind during a staycation when you’re, well, living in it.

But it’s a well-established principle that using PTO effectively helps employees recharge and stay productive. On the latest episode of Talent Experience Live, we explored some of these challenges with Phenoms Brad Goldoor, Chief People Officer, and Jonathan Dale, Vice President of Marketing.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted employee vacations?

According to a poll we ran on LinkedIn, 64% of respondents said they had not taken time off since April this year. Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal poll found that from April to May this year, only half the amount of vacation requests were made compared to the same time period in 2019.

Although many workers right now don’t have to face a commute and are working in the comfort of their own homes, burnout and stress are still a reality. In fact, the home environment adds its own set of stressors: a lack of boundaries may lead to an “always on” mindset; family members, roommates, and even pets can create frequent interruptions.

The bottom line? Employees still need time off even when pandemic restrictions are keeping them home.

How can HR support PTO during COVID?

Create a culture of acceptance regarding vacation time usage. “People are 28% more productive when they use all of their vacation time,” Goldoor notes. “If the ultimate goal is productivity, you need to work it in as a priority.” In fact, European countries view taking vacation time as a necessary aspect of being an effective employee, and not using PTO is well outside of the norm. HR leaders can take a cue from European companies and help institute a similar mindset.

Encourage managers to create a strategy to help their teams use PTO responsibly and effectively. Goldoor describes optimal vacation time usage as “disciplined freedom,” where PTO is viewed as a tool to help create a better work-life balance.

Consider a company-wide mental health day. Employees might need it more than ever to prevent burnout. After implementing a paid day off, Phenom found that giving employees the permission to truly disconnect for a day was invaluable. Goldoor added that HR leaders should carefully consider timing—tacking an extra day off onto a long holiday weekend, or coinciding it with the conclusion of a major project, for example.

How can managers encourage employees to take time off during COVID?

Watch for burnout. “As leaders and managers, just show your employees some empathy,” Jonathan Dale said. “When everybody was in the office, you got a sense of when someone was struggling. While everyone’s remote, that’s gone. Really try to understand how employees are doing.” Now, Dale relies on Zoom meetings, making it a priority to notice when an employee seems particularly stressed out and may benefit from using PTO.

Remind team members that vacation time is there to use—even if they had to cancel plans because of quarantine restrictions. Assure them that there’s no penalty in using time off—and make sure to take time off yourself to demonstrate that it’s really ok.

Understand and support varying employee needs when it comes to using vacation time during COVID. Some may need a week off to recharge; others might benefit more from taking several long weekends. Still others might prefer using frequent half-days, especially if they need to help kids with virtual learning or run family members to appointments.

Plan how to handle employees who work remotely from vacation homes without using PTO. As Dale observed, it’s a fact of quarantine life—a significant number of workers are spending extended time at vacation homes. Seeing co-workers Zooming from the beach or the mountains might spark a bit of backlash. Emphasize to teams that everyone will be held to the same standards of productivity and performance, no matter where they’re connecting from.

What can employees do to make the most of PTO during the pandemic?

Consider how using your time differently during these “new normal” circumstances will help you truly recharge, benefiting you and your team. For example, would building time into your day to exercise boost your productivity? Would scheduling some regular half-days remove mental stress and allow you to focus better on work? Talk to your manager about the possibility of these alternate PTO uses.

Be aware of the difference between taking advantage of time off and abusing time off. It comes down to that concept of disciplined freedom that Goldoor mentioned—look at your PTO as a tool to help preserve your focus and effectiveness. Communicate clearly with your manager. Know where you stand on your job performance, and consider how your time off will impact team workloads.

If you’re traveling somewhere, consider destinations that don’t end up causing more stress. Depending on where you're headed, travel can become tricky as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Be prepared to navigate this so that your vacation doesn’t end up doing more harm than good.

If you’re taking a staycation, strategize to let go. Make sure you set boundaries so that you can really get that much-needed break. Carve the time into your calendar and set reminders (and ask your family or housemates to remind you!). Switch your tech alerts to snooze, and prepare to really relax.

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