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Moving Beyond Mandatory Use of PTO: Are You Supporting or Inhibiting Employee Wellness?

Part 1 of 2: Employee Perspective


  • When leaders encourage their direct reports to recharge by taking PTO, they may not be considering the whole employee perspective.

  • Often, leaders promote the benefits of time off, but don’t ask questions about the costs their employees might feel.

  • Leaders can better support their employees by looking more deeply into employee and employer motivations, inquiring about cultural spoken and unspoken expectations, and reflecting on employee burnout patterns.

  • Leaders can consider how systems reinforce or reward working harder rather than smarter and what messages that sends to employees.

  • Leaders who regularly collect objective data on workload, stress, and burnout and engage in open conversations with their teams will better support their direct reports and reduce workplace guilt and misplaced efforts to measure quantity alone.

  • To support employee wellness, leaders must commit to and honor workload coverage while employees are away. This needs to be more thoughtful than simply overburdening other team members who will resent or burnout from the added load. Engaging in thoughtful and earnest discussion and planning will help interdependent teams thrive.

It’s nearing the end of the year and you and your employees may be scrambling to use up your soon-to-expire paid time off (PTO). Many leaders understand the value of encouraging their team to take time off to relax and recharge, but are you considering your employees’ real and perceived costs?

Understanding Underlying Employee—and Employer—Motivations

We’ve all had employees who put in seemingly endless amounts of energy and dedication to their job and take very little time off. Maybe they claim they don’t need it, they draw energy from work, or it’s their work ethic, but is this the whole picture?

These are all claims I’ve made—and believed—at various times in my career, but it turned out it was more about company culture and excessive workload expectations than my intrinsic drive alone.

I am a hard worker with high standards and reasonable efficiency—I have always taken on far more than the stated job, partly out of interest and partly because I could handle a lot more volume and complexity than some. And, if I introspect more deeply, partly because I’m a pleaser and felt guilty saying no.

Some of my excessive workload was therefore on me, but many of the systems I’ve worked in reward this—if not require it—and expect employees to be overburdened.

Thinking about your organization and team:

  • What happens when a job description is already overloaded and employees go the extra mile on top?

  • How much burnout is your team experiencing? How much turnover? Do your team members resist taking time off? Is time off the only thing they need? Have you ever asked?

  • When an organization is in growth mode, how often have you checked in and reassessed how much a role has expanded? Do you evaluate responsibilities and FTE at your top management level, or just expect them to hire more FTE of their own? What’s the cost of growth to your leaders?

  • Do members of your team and their team feel empowered to raise concerns? Is your system reinforcing excessive workload?

  • Are you engaging in open discussions with your teams that promote objectivity without fear of penalty or retaliation?

  • Do you find yourself asking your team to pitch in extra hours due to resource constraints? Is this a short-term or long-term expectation? Are you re-evaluating and welcoming feedback and exchange of ideas?

  • Do you reward employees who chronically work excessive hours with financial or other incentives? Is this a reward for good work product or poor management, delegation, or boundaries? Have you considered how these rewards impact high performing employees who work more standard hours?

  • How many times have you replaced a “high performing” FTE with two or more FTE when they leave?

When productivity is first measured in quantitative output (before qualitative, i.e., work harder, not smarter), this speaks to a greater systemic issue: the perception that if you’re not taking on more, you’re not taking on enough.

Whether we mean to or not, we reinforce the values of “long hours = hard work = good work” in cultures that reward and praise employees who don’t take time off.

How the Excessive Workload Perception Gets Built

I remember the first time I worked a 14-hour day. It was early in my professional career and there was a significant deadline coming up. I took my job very seriously and wanted to produce the highest quality work possible. I never wanted others to have to inherit or cover my work—I took pride in taking that burden off my superiors.

Somewhere after learning about the deadline, I was invited to a close family event that was important to me, so I asked my boss for a few days off surrounding a weekend. It was close to the deadline, but I’d work hard to get the product in good shape ahead and would be back to polish and submit it before the deadline. My request was approved.

I worked very hard to mobilize all the players contributing to the product early on—not an easy task for a low-level role engaging very senior players, but we got a lot done. On my last day prior to traveling, I worked 14 hours on the product, getting it to the highest quality possible (and I’m a perfectionist) so I could have it as solid as I could before going out. It was in good shape, and I walked away feeling I had done everything possible.

At the family event, I unplugged. It was important for me to be fully present at this particular event, and I resisted my strong urge and sense of guilt to check work email.

When I got back from what felt like a very restorative few days, I was met with an angry boss who reamed me for “not working hard enough ahead” and not checking my email and working on the product while away.

I felt so small—so guilty. All I’d put into it went unappreciated, and I had been reprimanded for taking a few approved days away (an exceptional ask for me, by the way). My boss was angry because it required a budgetary rework while I was out—something none of the players could have anticipated ahead (we had worked very hard on the detailed budget in advance).

I don’t doubt the revised budget took a lot of effort, but I was hurt and angry that this was being held against me. It wasn’t as if I had slacked off and handed over a subpar product—I had agonized over it and worked to make it easy on others. Plus, I covered parts of my boss’s workload when out—sometimes unanticipated things came up and we needed to rely on each other to step in.

I tried to talk through it with my boss, but we were not on the same page. The circumstances didn’t matter—my boss was pissed.

I apologized, took back the product ownership, and busted my butt staying late into the night every day until the deadline (fueled more by guilt and perfectionistic behavior than by need).

I told myself I’d never make that mistake again.

As Leaders, What Subtle Messages Are We Sending Our Employees? Have We Ever Asked?

I’m sure a lot of leaders can recall similar times in their career or exchanges with their personnel. There are a lot of takeaways about both me and my boss in this, but as leaders, are we sending the right message when we encourage our employees to take time off while at the same time reinforcing the value that they’ll never get ahead if they don’t go the extra mile?

Without conscious awareness, I carried that early “lesson” throughout my career until I became CEO and my team gave me feedback on how my own behavior (60+-hour workweeks, emails late into the night, PTO use limited to one-week blocks at a time) affected them.

Through leadership by example, I was sending the message that my behavior was what I expected of them. I’ll never forget the comment on my 360: “please be more respectful of our personal time.” I had no idea I was sending that message until that moment and the open team discussions that followed.

Leaders can look more deeply at their own subtle messages by considering:

  • Even when an employee defends their approach, to what extent is it also about the anxiety that will come from trying to catch up with the massive workload that will pile up in their absence?

  • Is anyone truly covering them (without resentment or burnout as a result)?

  • Have we ever asked them why they don’t take time off? Whether they feel they can?

What Can We Do Instead?

Leaders who encourage employees to take time off to rest and recharge aren’t doing enough; we need to also make clear, realistic arrangements to cover our employees’ workload while away.

I encourage you to have open discussions with your team about workload and burnout throughout the year. Rather than connecting it to use of PTO, which sends a mixed message (mandatory relaxation, despite the increased stress that will come of it), consider regular check-ins that include objective data, rather than simply employee opinion.

Assume your employees won’t voice their concerns; instead, consider what objective data you can collect to independently gauge volume, complexity, hours worked, and stress levels, and use this as a springboard for discussions.

Leaders who engage with their teams beyond mandatory PTO and stock employee engagement surveys will have the benefit of more deeply understanding, collaborating with, and co-developing greater employee satisfaction and outcomes.

If this post resonated, be on the lookout around January 1st for Part 2: System Perspective. And as always, please let me know what you think!


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