How to encourage employees to use PTO during coronavirus

As travel disruptions put summer trips to a halt and employees experience anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic and working from home, fewer workers appear to be claiming paid time off this year.

To stave off burnout and avoid a year-end vacation crunch, many employers are encouraging workers to use their time off. For employees who are worried about going on a trip, some employers are emphasizing planned time off, or a staycation, to promote better well-being.

“Everyone needs to reset at some point and that time will give room to come back with a fresh mind — ultimately allowing them to be more engaged and productive,” Jamie Coakley, vice president of people at Electric, an IT solutions company based in New York City.

Employees in IT are part of one of the industries that especially are experiencing the burnout, as they’ve pushed back on PTO to keep up with the surge in activity during the pandemic. By May, 70% of the Electric’s employees had taken less than two days off, Coakley says, adding that IT companies and support specialists have been inundated with work during this time.

“That was like a 911 alarm that people need to rest and recharge,” she says. “Right at the start of COVID-19, we helped almost 300 customers go fully remote. We had to get them set up, and we had to do it very quickly in order for them to be operating business as usual. It was crazy.”

Even if employees aren’t taking PTO, allowing flexibility in their schedule and breaks throughout the day can help ease stress. At LaSalle Benefits, a national corporate benefits firm, employees can choose if they want to work remotely or in the office, and are given more time for breaks and commuting.

“I've changed our lunch so if you come into the office you take an hour and a half for lunch,” says Bill Gimbel, president of LaSalle Benefits. “I want [employees] to have more flexibility to get out and just be outside. It’s also for people who are working a half day here [in the office] and then going home; it gives them more than enough time to commute without being nervous.”

The pandemic has blurred the lines between home and work, making it more difficult for people to let go of everything work-related when at home, but also figuring out how to be accountable, Gimbel says.

“A lot of it comes down to how the employer is looking at this and how much faith they have in their team to be accountable and fair, so it needs to be a two- way street,” he says.

One of the things employers can do to encourage PTO is to reduce meetings, which allows employees to have a clear schedule and take time off without fear of missing out on work information or opportunities, some experts say.

“It's not necessarily time off, but we encourage our people on no-meeting days to do that extra load of laundry or have lunch with your kids if they are at home, or just time to exist and do whatever they need to do to keep their life moving,” Coakley says.

Another way to increase PTO is to have managers monitor vacation time for their team to make sure there is time off in the pipeline.

“That helps people look forward to something, and it helps make sure that people are taking their time off and resting and recharging,” Coakley says. “It's a great way to monitor it rather than being surprised at a PTO crunch at the end of a quarter.”

Coakley says she has made sure that almost every executive team member at the company has taken time off, and managers are being encouraged to take time off as well. Seeing employees, friends and family members get laid off or furloughed can make employees fear losing their job, or worry about what might happen if they're not performing at work.

“When you see managers making sure that they are resting and recharging, it gives permission to their employees to do the same,” she says.

Evelina Nedlund Associate editor, Employee Benefit New