Rethinking Your Approach to Paid Time Off (PTO)

Rethinking Your Approach to Paid Time Off (PTO)


Paid time off (PTO) is consistently one of the most requested benefits across all employee generations. But more than half of U.S. employees still don’t use all of their paid time off.

This creates a vicious "burnout cycle" that companies are desperately trying to break:

  • Pressure: Resignations, layoffs, and absenteeism put more pressure onto the employees who remain, who have to work additional hours or take on more responsibilities to cover for them.
  • Burnout: Overworked employees rapidly enter burnout, resulting in lower productivity, lower-quality work, and higher likelihood of accidents due to high stress and disengagement.
  • Churn: Burned out employees "quiet quit", take time off, or leave the company outright, putting more pressure onto the employees who remain at the company.

But to break the burnout cycle, you first need to understand why people don't use their PTO.

Average PTO In the U.S.

10 days of vacation per year is normal in the U.S. On average, Americans get 11 days of paid vacation and 7 days of paid sick leave per year. Public-sector employees get more, with 13 vacation days and 11 sick days per year. This is according to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition to vacation and sick days, both private and public employees have paid holidays. Federal employees have 11 annual paid holidays, while some states observe unique holidays. Private employers usually use the same holiday schedule as the federal government and the state they're located in.

Companies with remote or distributed workforces typically have each employee follow the holiday calendar of their location. Or, they may allow their employees to "choose" the holiday calendar that they follow. For example, a company with employees in the U.S. and Canada might allow their Canadian employees to choose whether they take off American or Canadian holidays.

Some companies lump vacation and sick days together, while others offer 10 or 15 vacation days in addition to 5 or 10 sick days.

Factors that impact your PTO allowance include:

  • Tenure (how many years you've worked at the same employer)
  • Industry (financial services gives the most, leisure and hospitality gives the least)
  • Employer size (larger employers give more PTO, on average)

Why Don't People Take Time Off?

Unfortunately, 55% of workers don't use all of their PTO, forfeiting hundreds of millions of vacation days every year. Those PTO days are valuable. So why don't people take time off?

According to a survey by Glassdoor, reasons U.S. workers don’t use their vacation time include:


  • Fear that no one else at the company can do the work

  • Fear of falling behind

  • Fear of returning to a mountain of work

  • Fear of being seen as replaceable

  • Fear of missing out on participating in an important project, decision, or meeting.

  • Fear of pending layoffs, so they bank all their vacation time to cash out should they lose their job.


  • Feel guilty about leaving the office for too long because they think their team might feel lost or overwhelmed.

  • They feel bad that they can afford to pay for a vacation when others in the organization can’t.

Workplace Pressures

  • Wanting to show job dedication

  • Company culture discourages vacation.

  • Inability to disconnect

  • Stockpiling

  • Worried that taking a vacation would make them appear less dedicated or replaceable

  • Even if they are physically away from the office, they are expected to check and reply to email, participate virtually in meetings and check voice messages.

How can you overcome these objections and get employees to take time off without invoking unpopular company mandates? How can you inspire employees to take leave and truly disconnect? And how can you encourage employees to get away without causing workflow disruptions? 

Start by optimizing your PTO program.

How to Optimize Your PTO Program

Audit Your PTO Program

Optimization starts with taking stock of where you're at now. Take an honest look at your PTO policies, current employee experience, and company culture. Then ask yourself:

  1. Is this the right PTO policy for the type of culture and employee experience we’re attempting to foster at our organization?

  2. Is this PTO policy serving our employees or our organization?

  3. Does our PTO policy make it clear to our employees that we want them to take time off?

  4. Does our company culture encourage true disconnection? Or are people working while on vacation?

  5. Are there any clauses in our policy that might no longer reflect what we’re trying to accomplish as an organization?

Identify Employees Who Don't Take PTO

You’re then going to want to compile a list of all employees who have large PTO balances or have not taken PTO in a long time. A good rule of thumb is to create three lists:

  • Employees that have not taken any time off for 4 to 5 months
  • Employees that have not taken any time off for 6 to 12 months
  • Employees that have not taken any time off for 13 months or more

If you’re feeling brave and have an HRIS, you can export PTO requests for the upcoming six months and start to plan out a potential outreach strategy based on employees who are at the highest risk of burnout that have no scheduled PTO.

Nudge People to Get Away

Once you have this final list organized, you’re going to want to start reaching out to employees based on the highest likelihood of burning out and encouraging them to get way.

As you work your way through the list, go from suggesting a week (or so) to those who haven’t taken time off in a year or more down to a long weekend for employees who haven’t taken time off in four months.

The idea is to nudge employees to take time off, proportional to their likelihood of being low on productivity and high on burnout.

As you most likely guessed, this is a time-consuming process to start and even more time-consuming to continue. It also frequently falls out of date, so you have to stay on top of it. That’s why you’re going to want to automate it all.

Put PTO On Autopilot

If you’d like to get all of the benefits that come with optimizing and automating your paid time off but don’t have the time to actively manage the program or just don’t need any more anxiety in your life, check out PTO Genius.

We’ve built a full suite of tools that help you automate and optimize paid time off. Our PTO Optimizer automatically notifies employees of company-friendly times to get away and presents them with fun and inspiring activities to do while on vacation. Meanwhile, our Burnout Monitoring feature keeps an eye on employees and nudges them to get away before things get too bad.

If you’d like to get more out of your PTO, drop us a line!

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