More Thoughts on Managing Employees’ Time Off 

During last month’s Workforce Institute Weigh-In, my fellow advisory board members offered their perspectives on two questions: “How do you manage workers who take ‘too much’ time off? What about workers who don’t take ‘enough’ time off?”

In response to these questions, many thoughts arise.

Although I have not worked in a company that has a policy for unlimited paid time off (PTO) — which could alter my perspectives based on new information from that scenario — I have worked in companies that have low, average, and high vacation-earnings limits.

What I have observed is that no employee benefits program can address the needs of all employees, all of the time, while remaining viable, fiscally or strategically, from a company standpoint.

The bulk of employees for most companies in which I have worked have been and remain mainly professional or semi-professional level employees. The type of worker drives my thoughts regarding how the above questions are answered.

There does seem to be consistency among the population of employees who “max out” their paid vacation accrual limits where they rarely use their paid vacation, and those employees who are at the other extreme when using paid vacation time are viewed as taking too much time off, which is loosely described as the “earn it and burn it” approach.

With employee burnout and its related negative impacts on employees (and, ultimately, the company) at all-time highs during an extended period of time, my first action is to encourage managers to talk with their employees who carry high vacation balances and encourage them take some time off, even if it is just an extra day or two at the end or beginning of a week.

While longer breaks are important for most employees, it is also true that some workers truly want and need longer breaks, and some do not — regardless of the availability of paid time off. We need to remain mindful that most organizations are or are working toward a highly diverse workforce, and that people are different with different needs, desires, and capabilities, and considering those differences will aid managers in the administration of time-off benefits.

Additionally, during periods of time when we expect (or know) the workload will slow down a bit, I coach managers to encourage (not require) all of their employees to take time off — to be with family or to just rejuvenate their minds and bodies in preparation for the next busy cycle.

In roles where a critical position exists and there is only one employee in that role, an employee filling that type of role will often feel like they simply cannot take time off since the work must continue. However, as any manager should know, this exact scenario really does have one or more solutions, and it is up to the manager to develop a workable solution to this problem — and the employee should not be expected to solve this problem.

For those employees who apply the “earn it and burn it” approach, managers should consider shifting their focus from the volume of PTO used and instead focus on the work quality and quantity of a given employee. Let the data about quality and quantity inform the discussions, and try not to get too hung up on the absences. In those cases, where an employee continues to meet their performance standards (both quality and quantity of work), and when the employee provides appropriate advance requests and/or notice of their planned time off, managers should support an employee request for taking PTO, even when they are using the earn-it and burn-it approach.

Conversely, if the quality or quantity of work is suffering because of just too many or unplanned absences, the focus for the manager should be on how the employee is not meeting the minimum performance standards, such as the low quantity or low quality of work, and not specifically the absences.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that some positions simply cannot be away from work for any length of time — the healthcare industry can offer voluminous examples of this fact. This scenario is one reason some companies offer a vacation-buyback policy, which allows employees to cash in some of their unused vacation time so they do not “lose it” when there is an accrual limit.

An amusement park located in Southern California allows employees to sell back a small amount of their unused vacation balances each year, although the employees are limited to applying those funds to pay for their medical insurance premiums. And, while this might not be a perfect policy, it has received positive feedback over the years from its employees and does not require employees to attempt to fix a problem that is mainly driven by the type of company in which they work.