Summer is just around the corner, and thoughts of beaches, cocktails, and suntans are probably floating around your company. With steady vaccination rates and international destinations opening up to vaccinated travelers, many employees are eager to plan their first real vacations since the pandemic began. In fact, comparing January with April of this year, my company Fringe saw a 264 percent increase in employee travel-related perks selections from vendors like Airbnb, Hotels.com, and Turo.
The surge in wanderlust is hardly surprising. It’s clear that American workers are feeling record rates of burnout and strains on mental health. Whether it be working longer hours from home, or balancing the responsibilities of caregiver and employee, no one can argue that everyone deserves a break after the events of the past year.
But while employees are craving time off from work, many company leaders are continuing to see PTO reluctance among their people as the pandemic–while improving–wears on and concerns around travel persist into the summer months. Last year, less than a third of American workers took a vacation, and we may likely see this troubling trend continue into summer 2021 despite the progress we’ve made in the fight against Covid-19.
For employers, this should be a serious cause for concern. Burned-out team members are less productive and creative in their roles, and a culture of burnout can wreak havoc on workplace retention: A Deloitte study found that 42 percent of workers have left a job because of burnout. Even pre-pandemic, companies with unlimited PTO policies struggled to encourage their people to take breaks. In fact, workers at these organizations typically take less time off than those with an allotted vacation allowance.
This is a cultural issue that must be taken seriously and requires a proactive commitment that goes far beyond lip service or any PTO policy. Creating a workplace culture where employees feel empowered to take care of themselves allows everyone to do their best work.
Here are some strategies to get even the most stubborn folks “out of the office” this summer.
Set the example from the top down (and bottom up)
Company leaders are often the worst offenders of overworking. Though these tendencies may be caused by passion or a sense of responsibility, a leader’s behaviors–whether intentional or not–directly inform the rest of their team’s actions. By not taking time off, leaders can reinforce negative moral assumptions around PTO and set the expectation that vacations are contrary to success at your workplace.
It’s one thing to tell your people to take time off, but to truly create a cultural shift, those at the top need to buy in and lead by example. Young professionals and junior team members–the groups most vulnerable to burnout–may feel especially uneasy about taking days off, even when they see their managers doing so. Often having never taken a paid vacation before, new entrants to the workforce need to see their peers using their PTO in order to receive the message that it’s OK for them to do the same.
It’s important to reinforce that our bodies and minds don’t care how much tenure we have or whether or not we’ve “earned our keep.” We simply need rest to function. Consider forming a workplace culture committee made up of employees from all levels–from the most junior to the most senior. Not only can this group set a positive example for the rest of your organization, but they can also surface other cultural issues present in the workplace.
Finds ways to incentivize time off
To create a positive culture around PTO, organizations should consider incentives for taking time off in one form or another. Compensating employees for getting out of the office sends a strong message that PTO is something to be used and celebrated, rather than something employees should be ashamed to ask their managers for approval on.
In fact, a growing number of organizations are already taking this strategy. Professional services firm PwC is offering its employees $250 for each full week of PTO taken, for example.
While there’s no clearer signal than a cash incentive, those weary of this strategy should look to other ways to creatively reward their team members. Reevaluate your company’s wellness strategy or benefits program to see if travel expenses or vacation programs can be included as part of the package. If a vacation can help ease employee burnout, it’s worth investing company resources into subscription-based perks that support time away from the office.
Celebrate your people’s vacations
Companies must go beyond lip service to “unlimited paid time off” in order to create a culture where employees actually feel empowered to step away from their desks. As a company, consider celebrating colleagues, whenever possible, for taking time off–both inside and outside of your organization.
That could mean creating a vacation-specific channel in your company’s Slack workspace for people to share vacation tips, ideas, or plans with colleagues, or proactively sharing employee trips or nonwork outings (with their permission) on your company’s social channels. Positive reinforcement both from inside and outside your company’s walls can counteract feelings of guilt many feel for leaving their workplaces.
Time off isn’t a selfish luxury, but rather an opportunity for people to recharge and bring their best selves to work. As we buckle up for another summer in the Covid-19 era, it’s imperative for organizations to send the message that time off, whether it’s travel to a faraway destination or simply a staycation, is something to be celebrated. Doing so requires proactive and intentional effort on the employer’s part, but is sure to yield positive outcomes for the entire organization.
Originally published to Inc. on June 6, 2021.