Diversity and Inclusion

How to Build a PTO Policy That Supports Employees With Disabilities

September 15, 2023
February 7, 2024
Rosanna Campbell
Lattice Team

The US is the only advanced economy in the world with no mandated paid leave. This means it’s up to employers to establish appropriate leave policies for their own employees.

While many of us gripe about how few days we can take off (especially those of us with European friends posting photos of their three-week trip to Bali), for employees with disabilities, paid time off (PTO) is a major issue. Medical appointments, specialized therapy, and recovery all place demands on their time, and in the absence of adequate sick leave, people can end up using valuable vacation time to cover their health needs.

PTO is supposed to relax, rejuvenate, and even delight us: barriers to accessing that PTO defeats the point.

In this article, we hear from people with disabilities about their experiences and explore how HR leaders can design accessible and realistic PTO policies that address these injustices. It’s well past time to establish a fairer workplace for everyone.

Why Employees With Disabilities Need Accessible PTO

Up to 27% of US adults have a disability, and that number is only growing. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) identified 1.2 million more people as having a disability in 2021 than in 2020. Many of those disabilities — Crohn’s disease, chronic pain, and depression, to name a few — are not immediately apparent, and many may not realize their colleagues live with disabilities. 

Of people with chronic medical conditions, 96% live with an invisible illness, according to independent disability community Disabled World. This lack of visibility can lead companies to underestimate employees’ needs for time off. Recent return-to-office policies have meant many people with disabilities have lost the flexibility to work around their conditions, and are back to dipping into PTO to manage their health.

Businesses need to be adaptable to the needs of employees with disabilities. HR teams should look at shaping their PTO policies with disabilities in mind. Anything less means that you are failing a quarter of your workforce. 

Nico Meyering is a project manager and Certified Scrum Master living with a disability. He is also a member of the Philadelphia Mayor's Commission for People with Disabilities and a trustee of Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter.

“I've recently had to reschedule an appointment with my specialist from June to October. I had to delay the appointment, to bank as much PTO as possible before having to draw from it,” Meyering explained. “But in October I'll have to use PTO — if I miss my appointment, my insurance won't cover my ventilator anymore.”

There is a double-edged sword for people with disabilities and their work performance. Not only does their disability require them to work when they are unable to perform at their peak, but it also limits that precious time off that all employees need to recharge. 

Meyering points out the compounding impact that limited PTO can have on employees with disabilities: 

“Limiting our time off puts us in a scarcity mindset, where we have to ration yet another resource. We start to hedge our bets (‘Okay, am I REALLY too sick to work?’), push ourselves (‘I feel like death, but I don't have the time to spare’), and even resent colleagues who can bank enough PTO to take a break. 

“PTO is supposed to relax, rejuvenate, and even delight us: barriers to accessing that PTO defeats the point.”

Vacation time is important for everyone, to allow a little decompression, to make the most of personal time, family time, and commitments and activities outside of work. This is especially true for people who are dealing with debilitating health challenges.

It’s also important for the bottom line. Research shows that employees who take vacation are more productive, more creative, and healthier — all of which is good for business, not just the employees themselves. 

It’s in the best interests of companies to support the needs of employees with disabilities to balance the demands of their health, their work requirements, and their personal time off.

Employees with disabilities need flexibility, not sympathy.

Tim Reitsma is a people operations expert and a disability advocate. He lives with Crohn’s disease — an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that is both painful and debilitating, and which can be life-threatening. Treatments can include IV medication, surgery, and counseling. Clearly, both the disease and treatment require time away from work.

For people like Reitsma, managing their condition and their job can be a challenge. It’s not that they’re unable to do their jobs — it’s simply that they can’t always do their jobs at the mandated time, within the typical Monday-to-Friday 9-to-5 schedule their company might expect. 

“When I started working, I had to decide whether to share my condition. I needed regular IV medication, so I needed the time off. I told my manager I needed four hours every eight weeks, and it was met with understanding. We agreed that I would work remotely and/or make up the time.” 

Working with your employees to create a schedule that meets their needs isn’t just compassionate; it’s also good management. By supporting your employees, you create a workplace in which they can deliver their best work — and also secure long-term loyalty and commitment. According to Gallup, employees who feel that their employers care about their wellbeing are 69% less likely to look for another job and three times more likely to be engaged in their work.

For Reitsma, that flexibility and understanding from his manager “made me work harder than ever.” As he said, “I am not looking for a handout, just for support.” 

Not all employees are comfortable disclosing disabilities. 

Disability is often stigmatized, and people with disabilities often fear they will be treated differently, discriminated against, or even lose their jobs. As a result, just 3.7% of employees with a disability disclose it at work.

If you work in HR or management, you may think that you’ll be able to spot employees who might need extra time off, or who are struggling with some form of disability. However, chances are that you’d be wrong: 

This is one of the reasons Reitsma believes accessible PTO policies are important — so that employees can take the time they need — without having to disclose sensitive personal details to their manager. 

8 Ways HR Leaders Can Design PTO Policies to Support Employees With Disabilities

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employees who are unable to perform their job functions due to a physical or mental impairment have the right to take leave or change their schedule. But it falls to employers to determine how leave is implemented. 

To establish the right PTO policy for your business and all your employees, here are a few best practice tips: 

1. Check in with your employees to find out what they’d prefer.

As Reitsma put it: “Ask people what accommodation they need. Don’t just create a policy, pat yourself on the back and then wonder why no one is using the policy. Ask those who have disclosed what they need. And then be compassionate and reasonable.”

Tools such as employee engagement surveys can provide valuable data for understanding employee needs and satisfaction with PTO policies. Lattice’s engagement surveys allow HR teams to gather and analyze employee feedback and identify issues and employee needs, all while respecting their privacy. Surveys can also provide important insights into employee expectations and concerns about taking PTO.

2. Take an empathetic approach.

With any decision around paid time off, don’t start by looking at legal requirements and finances. Start by putting yourself in the shoes of your employees. “In many cases, it's the law to provide reasonable accommodation for disability needs, but that shouldn’t be the only reason to provide it. Employers need to act with empathy,” Reitsma said.

“Start by inviting people into a conversation. You hired people you thought would add value to your organization. So lead by example, build trust, provide reasonable accommodation, and your people will tell others what an awesome employer you are,” he added.

3. Consider a PTO bank model, instead of traditional paid leave. 

Traditional paid leave separates sick leave and vacation time so employees don’t have to dip into their vacation or personal days when they are ill. This might seem like a better option for employees with disabilities. 

However, PTO banks (where employees have a set number of days that they can take at will) mean that employees do not have to justify the time off. With a sufficiently generous bank, employees with disabilities can take the time off they need, without being forced into sensitive or stressful conversations with their managers about personal health issues. 

A quick caveat here — if you only offer a few days off, then the PTO bank model could force your employees with disabilities to use up all their leave on sick days and health appointments. So we’d only recommend the bank model if you’re willing to offer ample paid time off. 

4. Don’t insist on PTO accrual.

Accrual means that employees must earn their PTO through time worked — which can leave new employees with disabilities with no PTO entitlement, should they need time off right away. Lump sum systems, on the other hand, give employees access to all their paid leave from the beginning. 

While there are downsides to this — for example, leaving teams overstretched while members take leave — it offers employees with disabilities and health needs the flexibility they need to manage their health. 

5. Consider unlimited PTO.

To offer the very best for employees with disabilities, consider an unlimited PTO policy. With unlimited PTO, employees can take as much time off as they need — at their manager’s discretion. Companies like VMware, Netflix, and Github all offer unlimited paid time off. To quote the Netflix policy: “We don’t have a prescribed 9-to-5 workday, so we don’t have prescribed time off policies for salaried employees, either. We don’t set a holiday and vacation schedule, so you can observe what’s important to you — including when your mind and body need a break.”

But you don’t need to be a Fortune 500 brand to offer unlimited PTO. 

“At our orientation, my company's HR head said, ‘We don't care when or where you work as long as the work is done,’” Meyering explained. “Unlimited PTO recognizes that different people work best at different times. Many jobs can be done partially or mainly outside 9-to-5. This is something many of us already do!”

An unlimited PTO policy offers employees with chronic illnesses or disabilities the flexibility to balance their health needs with their work schedules, without having to worry about losing their job, losing vacation time, or even disclosing a disability in order to get days off approved.

Offering unlimited PTO can be as daunting for managers as it is attractive for employees. They may worry that, without boundaries, employees may find it difficult to know what is appropriate or may take advantage of the situation. However, research shows that employees with unlimited PTO don’t take any more time off than those with traditional leave policies.

In fact, we should add a word of caution here: Some companies have found that implementing unlimited time off caused employees to take even less vacation than before. While this might reassure those worried about a holiday free-for-all, for HR professionals keen to create a healthier workplace, this should be grounds for concern. A 2022 article in Frontiers in Psychology proposed that the problem may be a culture of social pressure that can “turn the freedom of taking leave into an obligation of not taking (too much) leave.” So, if you want to implement unlimited PTO, you’ll have to be vigilant about holding managers accountable to enable time off for everyone. 

6. Aim for flexibility, even if you can’t offer unlimited PTO.

Of course, many companies aren’t in a position to offer unlimited PTO plans. However, there are other supportive policies companies can use. For example: 

  • Offer a flexible working schedule, so employees can work when they feel well enough, rather than on a strict 9-to-5 timeline. 
  • Allow employees to donate unused PTO to colleagues who need it. 
  • Encourage managers to take vacations, so that time off is seen as the norm, not the exception. 

7. Keep it simple.

Communicate your PTO policy clearly. Detail the procedures in your employee handbook and incorporate them into the onboarding process for new hires. That way, employees are clear on the requirements, the procedures, and the culture. 

This can work to minimize stigma and judgment, alleviate the concerns or anxieties of those who need to use PTO for health reasons, and protect their privacy. 

Reitsma agreed, “Create a simple policy that builds trust between employee and manager. When employees need time away from work, they simply let their manager know they will be stepping back, and work with their manager to balance the workload.”

8. Encourage communication around disabilities and employee needs.

For Reitsma, open communication is key to creating a fairer workplace. “The way to reduce the stigma that surrounds invisible conditions is to educate people and share personal stories. 

“If someone has disclosed they live with something invisible, perhaps they’d be comfortable starting an Employee Resource Group. It doesn’t have to be up to management to educate and share — invite everyone into the conversation.”

Deliver PTO Policies That Works for Everyone

Time off is vital for ensuring employees are able to perform at their best while they are at work. Whether living with a disability or not, all employees need to take time away from work to recharge and to maintain their wellbeing and their performance. Flexible and accessible PTO not only benefits employees with disabilities, but also enriches the company's culture and fosters an environment of respect, inclusivity, and equality.

For a thorough resource on drawing up a PTO policy, check out our guide or time-off policy template. To find out how you can use Lattice’s surveys, one-on-ones, analytics, and dynamic growth plans to support your employees with disabilities, schedule a demo.