Simplifying the Sometimes Sticky Issue of Paid Time Off

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Temperatures are rising. Schools are out of session. Public swimming pools are open. That can only mean one thing. Summer!! (The official start date is June 21). As individuals and families take to the skies and roads for their summer vacations, it’s a good time to revisit the issue of paid time off.

For most workers and employers, vacation time is a precious earned benefit. I know employers who do everything in their power to allow employees to take their leave time as requested, acknowledging that time away from work is one of the major perks they can provide when there is no money for bonuses or other types of employee rewards. But there are times when an employer has to decline a request for time off, which is never pleasant. The reasons can run the gamut from having a major project deadline looming to too many people wanting off at the same time.

So what are some ways you can take the pain and presumption out of managing leave requests? Here are a few guidelines:

Have clear leave policies and make sure employees are aware of them.

Make sure your policies on taking time off clearly spell out the expectations for taking leave. For example, in some work environments, it might be perfectly acceptable for an employee to call in the morning and ask to take the day off. In other settings, more advanced notice is required.

Be fair and consistent.

Don’t use paid time off as a tool for managing employee behavior. Denying leave to an underachiever, but granting similar leave requests to your star performer is not only in bad management form but will likely make the poor performer behave even worse.

Have a good reason for saying no and personally communicate that news with employees.

Sometimes you’re just going to have to turn down an employee’s leave request. Perhaps your team is in the throes of completing a major project with a hard deadline and an employee’s absence could hinder the project’s success. Or maybe everyone has asked off for the day after Thanksgiving leaving your office with no coverage. These are times, though difficult when you have to say no. If that’s the case, try to soften the blow by being compassionate and empathetic. If possible, offer a compromise or other perks that might make the disappointment easier to handle.

Be alert to excessive use of paid time off and address the issue quickly and directly.

Everyone knows that person – the one who takes off the minute they earn their monthly leave benefit. While employees certainly are entitled to take their leave within policy guidelines, using the benefit as quickly as it is earned could cause problems down the road. This can be especially problematic if vacation, sick and personal leave are combined into one paid time off benefit. Nip the problem in the bud by having a frank discussion with the employee.

We’ve touched on ways to handle leave requests, but here’s an interesting wrinkle. What if your employees aren’t taking enough time off? Sound crazy? Maybe so, but in a February article, the Washington Post reported that from 1980 through today, the American workforce’s vacation rate has fallen from 3.3% to just 1.7%. The Post noted that the decline wasn’t because of a lack of available paid time off, but largely due to the fact that people were taking fewer week-long vacations and more often opting to take off a day here and there.

Another issue of the news article reported surfaces when the paid time off benefit combines vacation, sick and personal leave. Employees may be hesitant to use vacation or personal time out of fear they may have to use their time for personal or family-related health issues.

The problem with employees taking less time off is that it could lead to burnout, low morale, and decreased productivity, the exact opposite of what leave time is supposed to achieve. If this is a problem for your organization, there are several steps you can take to encourage workers to take their paid time off, short of making it mandatory.

Model the behavior.

Employees might be more likely to take advantage of their leave benefits if they see managers doing the same. Foster a culture that shows your workers it’s okay to take time off.

Have the conversation.

Talk with employees about the importance of getting away from work and taking a break. Make it clear they won’t be punished or looked down on for taking leave. Encourage them to take time for themselves and explain why it is not only important for them but also good for the organization.

Share monthly vacation balances, factor leave discussions into performance reviews, and promote work/life balance.

These simple tactics may be easier and more successful than a strategy one manager I know tried. The manager made all senior-level employees take a mandatory two-week vacation every year. The managers weren’t allowed to split the two weeks. His theory was that you couldn’t fully unwind and get away in just one week. While this might be seen as a heavenly mandate to some, it was surprisingly unpopular with the managers, who felt like it took control away from them.

In the end, it’s important to spend time away from work, and paid time off is an integral component to ensuring work/life balance and a healthy workforce.

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