- Employees are taking less time off during the pandemic.
- Paid leave is essential for employees to get a break from their daily grind.
- When asking for PTO, have an explicit conversation with your boss and ask guardrail questions.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Employees are taking less time off during the pandemic.
Companies are struggling, and that means employees feel anxious about taking time off. Plus, the pandemic means employees can’t travel. Some employers have invested in mental health days or mandated time off, to help encourage workers to take time to rest.
Paid leave is essential for employees to get a break from their daily grind. Time off relaxes and replenishes workers, and improves productivity when they return to the job.
According to US Travel, average vacation days in America began to decline in 1993, from around 20 days used per year to an all-time low in 2014 of 16.2 days used per year. Since then, however, Americans have taken more paid time off, bringing the average up to 16.8 days used per year.
America is still nowhere near Europe’s generous vacation policies. According to a column in the Economist, European workers typically get much of August off, while Americans struggle with the idea of taking a week off here and there. But such short vacations are not always healthy, says the magazine. A simple long-weekend trip “risks adding to the stress, as a high proportion of the vacation period is spent travelling to and from the desired destination. No sooner do you arrive than you have to think about packing for the trip back.”
Some people dread asking for time off, and assume taking less time off is expected of them, according to Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts and co-author of The New York Times best-seller, “Crucial Conversations.”
Grenny previously spoke to Insider about the best ways to ask for PTO, and how to get it.
Have an explicit discussion with your boss
One of the most important aspects, according to Grenny, is having explicit conversations where you find out exactly what’s expected of you.
When Grenny started VitalSmarts three decades ago, he knew that he and his three co-founders would be racing to be the guy who worked the hardest. “We’d look at each other 20 years later and have our kids calls us ‘Uncle Dad,'” Grenny said. “We didn’t want that, so we had a very explicit discussion early on.”
Make sure to have an open discussion with your employer about how much time off is expected from employees, and if workers are required to answer emails while they’re away.
Make sure you know what the company’s expectations are
Grenny warned that many employees take less time off because they assume it’s the norm, and as a result, they let their vacation days go to waste.
“You need to figure out what you’re comfortable with, and conversations are the vehicle for establishing expectations with others,” said Grenny. “If you don’t let [your boss and coworkers] express it to you explicitly, sometimes you hold yourself to a standard that they don’t expect, and you end up taking less advantage of some of these generous policies than you could.”
Ask guardrail questions
If you’re a new hire, asking general questions about vacation time can help you out later on when it’s time to ask for time off yourself.
Grenny gave sample questions to ask your boss: “How does it typically work? What do people typically do? Can you give examples of people who have abused it? So now I know what both normal looks like and what abuse looks like, and I can find my way in between those two guardrails.”
Watch for norms
Watching for norms is one of the easiest ways to figure out the right time and place for asking for PTO.
“See if you can get a sense for what the norms are for the people around you,” Grenny said. “What kind of rhythms do they use? What lengths of vacation? How much time away?”
According to Grenny, it’s important to make a mental note of how present other employees are while they’re on vacation. “What boundaries does the workplace tend to honor in terms of when you’re out? Are you really out, or do they intrude on your time for conference calls and for brief tasks?”
If you’re a new hire, earn social capital
If you’re new to the workforce, or if you’re a new hire, make sure you’re asking for PTO once you’ve earned it.
Grenny emphasized the importance of earning your place in the company before going on vacation. “I think it is important to be sensitive to earning social capital before you draw down on it,” he said. “Realize that the first thing you need to demonstrate is that you care about the problems, issues, and concerns of the workplace. And once you’ve demonstrated that, then you have something to draw down on.”
Assume that your company wants you to take time off
There’s no need to leave your vacation days untouched.
“I think the norm these days is that people want you recharged,” Grenny said. “People recognize that we’re complex human beings. For many of us [work] is a 24/7 thing because electronics intrude so much in our lives, so when we’re away, we need to be away.”
Don’t race to the bottom
Grenny described his past experience with the dangers of observing norms without talking directly to the boss, where employees took less and less time off, thinking they were benefiting the company. Grenny called this a “race to the bottom.”
“I’ve worked with many senior leaders in organizations that realize that they have a toxic culture that grinds people down, and that they need to have boundaries of going out and rejuvenating themselves,” he said. “People are operating on assumed norms rather than actual norms.”
Ivan de Luce contributed to an earlier version of this article.