Do You Get Enough Time Off?

leave work on time

Workers require time off in order to stay optimally engaged, innovative and productive. However, most employees in the U.S. get less time than they really need.

There are many different reasons why you might need a break from your job. You might get sick, for example, or you might have to take care of a family member or a close friend. Your personal life might require your attention. Or maybe you need some time away from the office to be with your family because you’ve recently had a baby.

Additionally, vacations provide the opportunity to rest and recover from the day-to-day grind. Although this kind of time off might not feel as urgent or necessary as sick time or parental leave, it’s important in the big picture of your career. If you really want to be at your best at work, you need some time off once in a while.

Individual circumstances and needs vary widely. But, there are some general rules of thumb about time off that everyone should understand. So, let’s dig in.

the benefits of paid time off:

Relax hammock

While some employers still offer a set number of sick days, personal days and vacation time, many have lumped all these days together under the umbrella of a paid time off (PTO) policy. Workers get a set number of PTO days, typically increasing with their tenure at the company. The employee can use these days as they see fit.

Sometimes companies set other limits on PTO, such as how much notice workers need to provide. Or, an employer might implement certain exceptions, like big meeting weeks for example, when everyone’s attendance is required.

Alternatively, some employers offer unlimited vacation time, theoretically allowing workers can take as much or as little time as they want (provided their manager approves and their work schedule allows). While this might seem like a fast way to turn your office into a ghost town, research has shown that workers actually take less time off under these policies. So, the challenge for many managers is making sure that their reports actually take the time they need.

However it’s structured, time off benefits workers. Here are just a few examples of how PTO could help you:

  • Job satisfaction. Paid time off helps workers to feel valued and empowered. Plus, the time away allows for better work-life balance which can benefit your overall outlook and mood. Improved employee retention follows.
  • Health. Being able to schedule doctors appointments, etc. helps keep you healthy. And, it’s a good idea to stay home when you’re sick, too. Also, vacations are good for your health in all kinds of ways. They help lower stress levels, improve sleep and help prevent heart disease.
  • Autonomy. PTO allows you to manage your personal time and your work time in ways that work best for you. You know that you can probably get the time when you need it — ideally without having to give your boss a lot of details about your personal life. Since PTO/unlimited vacation policies tend to exist in organizations with a lot of trust in their employees, you’re likely to have more control over your time.
  • Productivity and creativity. At first glance, it might seem that taking a break from work would diminish productivity. But, just the opposite is true. Vacation time can help spark creativity and fresh solutions to old problems by allowing for some clearing of the cobwebs and reduced stress. Time off can help you do your best work.

“The productivity, creativity, bringing new ideas forward isn’t the person who’s working crazy hours,” Katie Denis, VP and lead researcher at Project: Time Off, told CNBC. “It’s someone who’s getting outside of their day-to-day.”

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Paid time off in reality:

time off

The current state of paid time off in the U.S. leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different. But, many workers aren’t getting the time off that they really need.

Here are a five key statistics that help illustrate the current situation:

1. PTO isn’t mandated in the U.S.

The United States is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee any paid vacation time to its citizens. By contrast, in France, all workers are guaranteed 30 paid vacation days a year.

2. Paid vacation days often go unused

As a general rule, the number of paid vacation days an employer gets increases alongside their tenure. The average worker received 15 paid vacation days after having been with a company for five years in 2017. Workers who’d been at a company for 20 years got 20 vacation days, on average. After about a year, 10 days are more typical.

Unfortunately, 52 percent of American workers left vacation days on the table in 2017, according to the latest data from Project: Time Off. Americans gave up about 212 million days, which adds up to about $62.2 billion in lost benefits. But, many workers feel they can’t use their vacation time. Fifty-six percent said their workload was too heavy to get away. And, 61 percent said that they feared looking replaceable if they took vacation.

3. Many workers don’t even get sick pay

sick day

Staying home from work when you’re sick is a good idea, not just for your own health but for the benefit of those around you. However, this isn’t easy for workers who don’t get any paid sick days.

The United States doesn’t require employees to provide sick leave. So, only 72 recent of American workers have paid sick days. Lower-wage earners are more likely to go without this benefit, further complicating their economic and day-to-day challenges.

4. Parental leave options still aren’t available for most workers

The Family and Medical Leave Act requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave for mothers of newborn or adopted children if they work for a company with 50 or more employees. That’s the only federal requirement currently on the books regarding parental leave in the United States. Additionally, four states have passed paid parental leave laws in recent years. Still, these laws aren’t serving all citizens.

The current reality for working families is stark when it comes to parental leave options. One in four employed mothers in the U.S. return to work within two weeks of giving birth. And, only about 13 percent of U.S. workers currently have access to any form of paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, paid parental leave helps promote gender equity, improves health, increases retention and demonstrates respect for employees. Because of this, some employers of choice have expanded their family leave options in recent years.

However some organizations have already started to pull back. The Gates Foundation announced recently that they are cutting their 52-week parental leave policy in half. They said the policy caused unexpected levels of disruption to the functioning of the organization.

In a LinkedIn post, the foundation’s Chief Human Resources Office, Steven Rice, explained:

We saw and heard many good things, like wonderful stories of quality family time with a new child and career development opportunities for those who took on a challenging backfill opportunity.

But we also learned the program had created some unintended consequences. We received feedback and saw in practice that a year away was more disruptive than we anticipated. For example, backfill positions had a ripple effect across the organization, in some cases extending two or three layers deep. While some backfills are hired externally, a large percentage are internal and once we backfilled the role of an employee going on leave, we often needed to find a backfill for the backfill. On one team, 50% of the staff was either on leave or staffed by those in backfill positions, making the regular work of the foundation far more difficult than expected.

The foundation will continue to offer six months of paid leave and they will also include a $20,000 stipend “to help with child care costs and other family needs.” This is generous in comparison to the norm. However, this shift still stands as an indicator of potential trouble ahead for generous family leave offerings.

5. Low-wage workers are hit the hardest

Unfortunately, low-wage workers are the hardest hit by lack of PTO. Only 34 percent of private-sector workers at the bottom of the wage distribution receive paid holidays, for example. And, only 39 percent get paid vacation time. However, 93 percent of workers in the top 10 percent receive both paid holidays and vacations.

Many low-income earners don’t take time off, even when they really need it. Sixty-five percent of workers with household incomes below $30,000 who didn’t take leave when they needed it said it was because they thought they’d be risk losing their job if they took time off, according to Pew Research Center. This factor typically isn’t as much of a concern for middle and higher income workers.

So, how much paid time off should workers get?

There’s no definitive right or wrong answer to how much time off workers should receive as a part of their compensation package. However, it’s clear that policies in the United States are lagging behind those in other countries with advanced economies.

All workers deserve to take time away from work when they need it, whether they’re sick, caring for a family member or taking a needed and deserved vacation.

There shouldn’t be such a marked contrast between the benefits workers enjoy at the top of the income scale versus the bottom. More compassionate and equitable policies are long overdue.

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