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Updated Nov 20, 2023

Most Employees Don’t Use Their PTO: Why That’s Bad and How to Change It

Encouraging your employees to prioritize their well-being is a win-win.

Rebecca Neubauer, contributing writer
Rebecca Neubauer , Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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Paid time off (PTO) policies are part of a well-rounded employee benefits plan designed to attract top talent, boost employee retention and ensure a healthy, positive workplace. However, many employees are eschewing their time off due to guilt, fear of being replaced and an unwillingness to face perceived judgment from their peers. 

However, not taking adequate time off creates even more problems for employers and businesses, including burnout and a toxic office culture. We’ll examine why employees aren’t using their PTO, the adverse effects this creates and how to build a workplace culture that prioritizes taking time off to enhance wellness. 

How many employees aren’t using their PTO?

According to the U.S. Travel Association’s time off and vacation usage data, 55 percent of United States employees do not take advantage of their employers’ PTO policies. According to a QuickBooks PTO survey, 52 percent of those who took time off still worked, while one in five misled their managers about their reasons for taking time off.

It may seem like having more employees remain in the office is a good thing. However, when employees fail to take PTO, they and their employers experience adverse effects. 

Did You Know?Did you know
No federal laws mandate that employers provide PTO. However, many regions have specific paid leave policies businesses must follow, including family leave, maternity or parental leave and sick leave laws.

Why aren’t employees using their PTO?

Despite the availability of PTO in employee benefits plans, many workers never take their allotted time off. And according to a study by Namely, employees with unlimited time off benefits take even less PTO than employees with set PTO amounts.

There are several factors behind this reluctance to take time off, including the following:

  • Employees feel guilty for taking PTO: According to an Alamo family vacation survey, 53 percent of respondents felt guilty for taking time off because they feared their co-workers must absorb their workload. Additionally, unrealistic expectations in the workplace often leave employees feeling pressured to stay available 24/7 and accessible outside of work.
  • Employees fear they’ll lose their jobs if they take PTO: Fear of being fired is a significant reason many employees forego vacations. Unlawful termination laws differ by state, so many employees feel unprotected or discriminated against if they take a vacation. In some states, if you are an at-will employee without a signed collective bargaining agreement or employment contract, you can be fired for any reason ― including taking vacation days. Employees who want to play it safe don’t use their PTO.
  • Employees fear being judged if they take PTO. According to a survey by Skynova, 27 percent of remote workers worry about being perceived as “lazy” if they take time off, even when sick. The same survey found that 33 percent believed their immediate supervisors might raise questions about the motives behind their vacation days. Taking time off for mental health is even trickier. According to a Breeze mental health survey, 63 percent of respondents took time off for mental health reasons ― but nearly half lied to their employer about why they took PTO.
  • Working parents fear they’ll be stigmatized if they take PTO. While working parents are protected from discrimination by the Family and Medical Leave Act, some are reluctant to take paid time off due to social stigma and interpersonal consequences. They may fear the resentment of their child-free co-workers if they’re perceived to have more flexibility.
TipTip
Carefully weigh the holidays you'll include in your PTO policy, including federally recognized and state holidays. Consider adding floating holidays to give employees the flexibility to celebrate holidays that are meaningful to them.

What are the potential effects of not using PTO?

Employees and their employers suffer when PTO is left on the table. Some potential adverse effects of not using PTO include the following: 

1. Employees who don’t take PTO are prone to burnout and stress.

Employees who don’t take adequate time off are more vulnerable to burnout. In a 2022 study by Visier, 89 percent of respondents reported experiencing workplace burnout since the pandemic. The top burnout causes include heavy workloads, a toxic workplace culture and work-life imbalance. Around 42 percent of respondents said taking time off alleviated some burnout. However, 49 percent noted that returning from time off created the additional burden of catch-up work.

Additionally, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report revealed that nearly 44 percent of employees reported experiencing work-related stress. Among the respondents, only 33 percent rated their well-being as “thriving.” 

Did You Know?Did you know
To prioritize workplace mental health, employers can enact a no-after-hours email policy, implement an employee assistance program and offer an employee health and wellness plan.

2. Workplace productivity and morale can plummet when employees don’t take PTO.

Not taking PTO can lead to a decrease in workplace productivity and company morale. Additionally, time off can spark innovation. A study by Korn Ferry found that 80 percent of employees experience a “breakthrough idea” while relaxing during time off, positively affecting their job performance.

“Employees who pause during vacations return with a renewed sense of energy and purpose, which enhances their productivity and drive,” explained Kevin Cashman, CEO and enterprise leader development at Korn Ferry.

3. Businesses experience higher turnover when employees don’t take PTO.

A 2020 study found a direct correlation between job stress and employee turnover, revealing that the more stressed the employee, the higher the chances of them quitting their jobs.

Vacations can be an excellent opportunity for employees to reset mentally and physically and gain relief from work-related stress. When employees take time off and truly disconnect from work, they can regain motivation and loyalty ― and the business can reduce turnover.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
When employers encourage mandated paid time off or vacation days, employees are less likely to feel guilty, ultimately boosting morale and lowering turnover.

How can employers encourage the use of PTO?

Encouraging PTO benefits employers and workers by fostering a workplace culture where employees feel cared for and trusted. Here are some ways to make PTO decisions easier for your team: 

  • Make your PTO policy easy to understand: Ensure all employees can access and understand their employer’s PTO policy. The policy might include information on when time off is allowed, how employees can request time off and how long the approval process takes.
  • Provide flexible PTO options: Consider providing employees with different types of PTO, such as vacation days, sick days and personal days. Flexibility helps employees meet their unique time-off needs.
  • Cultivate a culture of taking PTO: Create a positive company culture where employees feel supported and encouraged to take time off. For example, quickly accommodate your team’s special requests for holidays or time off with family.
  • Have clear work delegation processes: Create a delegation process while employees are on leave. Ensure their workload is manageable when they return and that it doesn’t unduly burden the rest of your team while they’re gone. Effective delegation will reduce anxiety, stress and resentment.
  • Reward and recognize employees who take PTO: Implement a recognition program that rewards and recognizes employees who use their vacation days. Additionally, employers can provide employees with additional paid time off for taking a specific number of vacation days in the year.
  • Provide mental health education: Educate employees on the importance of taking time off and its role in mental health. Employers can provide resources to help employees identify warning signs of burnout and other work-related stress.

PTO can foster a positive work environment

Balancing life stress and workplace stress can be challenging. By encouraging and supporting PTO usage, employers can help foster productivity, motivation and health. A healthier, happier workforce creates better results for team members and the overall organization. 

Additionally, a generous PTO policy free from guilt will help your company attract and retain top talent, boost employee loyalty and encourage workers to stay with you for the long haul.

Rebecca Neubauer, contributing writer
Rebecca Neubauer , Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Rebecca Neubauer is a finance expert who became increasingly passionate about the subject while developing strategies to pay off $100,000 in student loan debt before opening her own small business. Neubauer now shares what she's learned with other entrepreneurs, breaking down complex business topics and teaching fellow business owners best practices for everyday operations and financial stability. Neubauer's business acumen and financial wisdom are apparent in her professional guidance, which has appeared in USA Today, Business Insider, GoBankingRates, Money.com, LendEDU and FinanceBuzz. She's provided advice on everything from the best billing software to how to calculate overtime, and especially enjoys working with small business owners in local communities.
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