Managers play a critical role in safeguarding their team’s wellbeing and performance. And often, that puts them on the frontlines of managing time off.
But with a 2023 report from the Pew Research Center showing that almost half (44%) of employees don’t take their full allocation of leave, it’s clear that managers need to implement the company's time off policy to keep their teams performing at their best. On a day-to-day basis, this includes:
- Juggling competing employee demands and trying to keep everyone happy
- Working with HR business partners to ensure policies are being followed
- Making sure that performance expectations are being upheld and that projects stay on track when employees take vacations
We asked experts about the best practices every manager should follow to support their teams and their organization when it comes to paid time off (PTO). Here’s what they told us.
Why Some PTO Policies Fall Flat
While most organizations set out to build a PTO policy with the best of intentions, it’s not always easy to keep track of how well it’s working as your workforce grows. As you start analyzing your processes and policies around PTO, the first question you’ll likely want to ask is: Does your company’s PTO policy actually work?
According to recent data, the answer for most companies is no:
- According to 2023 research by Zippia, a third (31%) of US employees do not have access to PTO.
- Over half (52%) of employees who are entitled to PTO report working during their vacations.
- A 2019 report by the US Travel Association, Oxford Economics, and Ipsos found that over 765 million vacation days went unused by Americans in 2018.
In fact, the United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays. This isn’t just bad for the employees, it’s also bad for business. Running your team into the ground is like running your factory at surge capacity — eventually, the system is going to break down.
As a manager, you should be encouraging employees to use their time off, knowing that it is a strategy for ensuring your team’s performance and satisfaction on the job.
How PTO Can Improve Your Team's Performance
Here are four key reasons why it’s so critical to ensure your employees have PTO, and actually use it.
1. Enhance recruitment outcomes.
If you don’t offer employees time off, you may find it harder to recruit and retain top talent. According to a 2017 report by Quickbooks, 63% of employees would turn down a job offer if it didn’t include PTO. Today’s workers increasingly prioritize work-life balance — and that means plenty of breaks to rest and recharge.
2. Boost employee performance.
Employees who take PTO perform better when they’re back at work. According to a 2020 article by Harvard Business Review, performance starts to drop if we work for too long without a break. On the flip side, employees who take more than 10 days of vacation are more likely to receive a raise, suggesting that their performance is enhanced by PTO.
3. Safeguard health and wellbeing.
Ensuring that your employees take PTO is one of the best ways to improve their overall wellness, research suggests. For instance, long working hours have been linked to about 745,000 deaths in a year from stroke and ischemic heart disease. Even planning a vacation has been shown to reduce cardiovascular stress levels.
This benefits the bottom line, too: More planned vacations result in less unplanned sick leave.
4. Reduce employee burnout.
Burnout remains endemic, according to a 2022 survey by Slack. In fact, levels of burnout are on the rise, with the most significant increase in the US, where 43% of desk workers say they feel burned out.
Encouraging employees to take breaks can be highly effective at warding off burnout and exhaustion, according to 2022 research published in Frontiers in Psychology. Researchers found that breaks are especially helpful after busy periods or important deadlines when energy is low, as they help stave off further energy depletion.
Stephan Baldwin, the founder and manager of the Assisted Living Center, a directory of senior living networks, noted that paid leave is especially important for supporting employee mental health, job satisfaction, and retention.
“There’s a misconception that taking time off is merely an escape from the duties around the office,” he said. “However, paid time off is an employee’s right to a mental health break throughout a busy work year. Burned out employees are more likely to scale back on their work quality and may be more inclined to leave the company.
“As a manager, you should be encouraging employees to use their time off, knowing that it is a strategy for ensuring your team’s performance and satisfaction on the job.”
8 Ways Managers Can Help Manage and Track Time Off for Employees
Many managers feel like leave management is the responsibility of the HR team. Up to a certain point, that’s true — it’s usually HR’s role to develop the PTO policy in the first place. However, your role as the manager is to:
- Make sure that your team actually takes the PTO they’re allotted.
- Communicate your PTO policy correctly.
- Ensure that everyone gets their fair share of paid leave.
- Mitigate the risk of project delays if too many employees are off at the same time.
Here are eight best-practice tips to make sure that your team is performing at their best by taking regular breaks to refresh and recharge.
1. Model the behavior yourself.
Your team is only going to feel comfortable taking PTO if they see that you do it too. This is definitely one of those times where actions speak louder than words! A 2020 survey by EY found that many employees, especially millennials, are reluctant to take vacation because they felt under pressure to “demonstrate their dedication to their careers.” The only way to override their anxiety is to take your own vacation days.
Jonathan Elster, the CEO of ecommerce logistics platform EcomHalo, said it best: “PTO is for everyone. Some employees may feel that by taking PTO they are viewed as not pulling their weight. Everyone needs and deserves an extra break occasionally, so we encourage our leadership team to lead by example and take PTO themselves when they can.”
2. Create a culture of taking PTO.
It only takes a few employees feeling hesitant about taking their holiday to stir up self-consciousness among your team. This is why it’s important to make sure that your team has a pro-vacation culture. Be mindful about how you discuss PTO with your team, and aim to make employees feel positive and confident about booking leave:
- Don’t make any jokes or comments, no matter how lighthearted, about employees taking leave — they may well be misinterpreted as disapproval.
- Never pressure employees to tell you what they’re doing with personal time.
- Actively check in with employees and remind them to take time off if they haven’t had a break in a while.
- Express your approval when an employee puts in a PTO request.
Vaibhav Kakkar, CEO and founder of global marketing agency DigitalWebSolutions, said: “Creating a supportive environment [for taking PTO] will build trust among colleagues while preventing burnout — ensuring work morale remains high even during peak vacation season.”
3. Don’t make assumptions that employees are taking leave.
You might assume that your team is taking as many vacation days as they need, especially if your company offers unlimited paid time off. However, 2020 research published by the Society of Human Resources Management reveals that employees at companies with unlimited time off actually end up taking fewer vacation days overall.
Instead of making assumptions, proactively track your team’s vacation days using your HRIS or employee leave software, and use automated notifications to make sure that they feel encouraged to take a break. Ensure that you’re monitoring their PTO accrual rates and try to avoid too many rollovers — regular breaks are important for productivity and wellbeing.
4. Communicate your company’s PTO policy clearly.
You also shouldn’t assume that everyone knows what your leave policy is. Kristen Fowler, Practice Lead at Clarke Caniff Strategic Search, said managers “need to ensure that PTO policies are documented and consistent across the entire organization.” According to Fowler, this includes:
- Communicating policies effectively
- Planning for coverage
- Encouraging open communication
- Being supportive of employee wellbeing
One great starting place for developing your company’s comprehensive PTO policy is our time-off policy template. “By having clear and consistent PTO policies, managers can prevent misunderstandings and promote a healthy work-life balance for their team members,” Fowler added.
Will Yang, head of growth at grant management software company Instrumentl, said transparency around leave requests is a win-win for managers and employees:
“When you're clear about how much time you expect people to take off, it helps them plan their lives better. They know when they can schedule a vacation or sick day without worrying about getting scolded by management or HR. And it also helps them plan projects — they'll know how much time they'll have to finish something before they go on vacation.”
5. Plan ahead to maximize flexibility.
Kelly Chan, marketing manager at chartered accountancy firm AccountantOnline, said the secret to managing PTO is to be proactive when planning for employee absences. That way, Chan said, employees can feel confident that taking their PTO won’t leave the rest of their team struggling to cope:
“I always strive to ensure that there is backup support available for employees who may need to fill in for colleagues who are on PTO. This can include cross-training team members, assigning temporary responsibilities, or designating a point of contact for urgent matters.”
Marnix Broer, co-founder and CEO at Studocu, a study notes platform for students, cautioned managers to be careful about the ‘first-come, first-served’ approach to approving PTO applications, especially in small businesses.
“The key to seamless PTO schedules is balancing structure, flexibility, and team support for every request,” Broer said. “We consider ‘first-come, first-served’, but also look at the big picture. If an employee hasn’t booked any other vacation time or has an important reason, we try our best to accommodate. With a tight-knit team, this usually works well because teammates are willing to help out a coworker, and they get that support returned to them.”
6. Use a transparent, user-friendly PTO tracking system.
Using a standardized request form for time-off requests will help minimize stress on both sides. You may also want to consider sharing time-off publicly, so employees can gauge their own use of PTO, suggested Yang:
“Being transparent about what other people are doing with their PTO lets people know where they stand within the company. It's important that people don't feel like they're falling behind or missing out; if everyone knows how many days everyone else is taking off at any given moment, it's easier to feel like you're on the same page.”
Even if you don’t feel comfortable with that level of transparency, you should definitely consider swapping out your Excel sheet for a PTO tracking software to streamline the approval process and track employee leave. By making it easier to manage the process, you can make sure that every employee gets a fair deal.
“Tracking PTO is important,” said Elster. “We aim to have PTO evenly distributed throughout the business, and tracking ensures that everyone gets their turn and uses their allocation.”
7. Ask for feedback on your PTO process.
Elster urged managers to solicit employee feedback about PTO, so they can “refine the procedures and make it more accessible and fairer for everyone.” This can be done formally via employee survey, or more casually during manager one-to-ones with your team.
Questions to ask include:
- Do you know how many vacation days you’re entitled to?
- Do you feel comfortable taking all your vacation days? If not, why not?
- How do you feel about the fairness and transparency of our current vacation approval process?
- Do you find it hard to manage the workload when your teammates take vacation? If yes, how can I help to improve the situation?
8. Think laterally about PTO.
As well as making sure you’re managing vacation tracking effectively, you may want to consider instituting alternative types of leave too.
For instance, many employers have begun to offer volunteer time off, or VTO. This allows employees to take paid time off (PTO) during the workday and contribute to a cause they’re passionate about. It can be a great way for your team to disconnect, bond with each other, and find more motivation for the work ahead. Mental health leave is also rising in popularity to safeguard employee emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Another alternative to standard leave — a mandatory “duvet day.” This British expression refers to a personal wellbeing day that employees can spend relaxing at home (or any way that they want!). It can be a great way to help your team recharge after a particularly grueling season at work — for instance, after a major product launch or in the wake of stressful events in the workplace.
Download Our Ebook on Burnout Prevention
Burnout is on the rise on a global scale. But by taking a proactive approach to managing and tracking your employees’ PTO, you can make sure your team avoids exhaustion and overwhelm, and keep their performance high.
To learn more about how burnout arises, and how you can develop strategies to identify and prevent it, check out our free ebook: How to Prevent and Treat Workplace Burnout.