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RfH Insights: How to Get Employees to Take PTO During COVID-19

May 27, 2020
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RfH Insights features actionable advice curated from Resources for Humans, Lattice’s online Slack community of 8,000+ HR and recruiting professionals. Interested in joining the conversation? Register here.



The survey data is clear: Employees are feeling burned out and out of balance. Under normal circumstances, a beach getaway or flight abroad might sound like the surest remedy. Unfortunately, these are anything but normal circumstances.

Members of the Resources for Humans Slack community report that employee PTO usage has dipped sharply since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Between optics and the fact that travel has ground to a halt, that isn’t too surprising. But the importance of taking a break doesn’t stop during a pandemic. We asked HR leaders to share how they were getting their teams to disconnect.

1. Remind employees (early and often).

Lost in current events and your day-to-day, it’s easy to forget that PTO was ever a thing. The easiest way to start to rectify that is to remind employees early and often to take a break.

“We’ve encouraged people to take a day or two at a time to completely unplug from work email, Slack, and Zoom. Whether it means they use the day to spring clean, take a walk, or binge-watch Netflix. We tell them that it’s important to take that break for their mental wellbeing,” said Britney Pierini, Head of Employee Experience and DI&B at Bread. With everyone’s travel plans postponed, that encouragement could go a long way.

“We've had a lot of people take us up on it and come back feeling refreshed. For example, several people took last Friday off to elongate their Memorial Day weekend,” Pierini said. With some companies observing Independence Day on a Friday (it falls on a Saturday this year), that might be another great opportunity for an extended long weekend.

Some teams were using data to identify which teams they needed to prioritize in their outreach. “We’re strongly encouraging people to take time off during lockdown. So far, we’ve looked at the amount of time off people have taken and focused on the teams with lower numbers. We want to work with managers to further encourage their team members to plan their time off,” said Athina Karydia, Senior People Operations Associate at Tractable

2. Add new company holidays to mix.

Though they’re associated with vacations, summers are usually light on US holidays. Rather than leaving employees with just Independence Day and Labor Day to get them through a socially distant summer, companies are rewriting their holiday calendars to give employees more time to disconnect. These additional mental health or “refresh” holidays were popular with members of the Resources for Humans community.

“We added three long weekends to the calendar for Q2. We've gotten really good feedback, and this was the easiest way to normalize taking time off at all levels,” said Natasha Genet Avery, Head of People at Tribe Dynamics. Worried that employees might be dissuaded from using their paid time off (PTO), Avery and other HR professionals were pushing for more of these mandatory holidays going into the third quarter.

“We implemented an additional company holiday per month for the time being...Giving employees these three-day weekends has been a big boost in morale,” said Carla Mariotti, a Florida-based People Operations Senior Manager.

Angie Bergner, Director of Talent Operations at Ivy Research Council, knows that even unlimited PTO policies aren’t always enough to get employees to disconnect. But her team has something even more ambitious than a one-off mental health day in the works. “We are doing a mandatory day off per month right now. In two weeks after a big push towards a company virtual summit we're hosting, we're doing a company-wide ‘Refresh Week’ where everyone will be asked to take at least two days off, if not the whole week,” Bergner said.

Additional Resources

For more PTO inspiration, read our guide on how to build a time off policy that encourages employees to disconnect.

3. Lead by example.

In times of crisis, no one wants to be the first person to request a day off. But months into a pandemic, it’s imperative that leadership sends a clear message that taking a break isn’t just acceptable, it’s especially important right now. The best way to send that message, loud and clear, might be to have those leaders disconnect themselves.

“I’m encouraging my company to take time off often. We’re also having the leadership team lead by example. I took yesterday off, and another leadership team member took a day off two weeks ago,” said Tiffany Suazo, HR Manager at Noah. For increased visibility, some HR professionals encouraged leaders to share stories, reflections, or photos from their time off.

“When leaders model behavior, it normalizes it for employees. HR and leadership can and should communicate openly about how they themselves are prioritizing self-care and rest,” said Rachel Cooke, founder of Lead Above the Noise.

4. Give employees tools to disconnect. 

Given that exotic getaways aren’t in the cards anytime soon, finding things to do while on PTO can be a challenge. Some HR leaders believed their teams just needed a little inspiration.

Bergner created a “Day of Reflection” checklist that the rest of the Ivy Research Council team could use to ensure they got the most out of their time off. The document provides suggestions on exercise programs, stress-relieving hobbies, and remote activities with loved ones. Employees were more than grateful for the recommendations. “A good number of the team followed it and shared pics on our Slack and said it was really helpful,” Bergner said.

She wasn’t alone, as a handful of other community members had provided employees with resources for their days off. “We created a ‘Tips for a Summer in Quarantine’ list with ideas such as grabbing takeout at Michelin-starred restaurants, fostering a pet, and taking advantage of cocktails to-go. Hopefully, it’ll give people some inspiration on what to do on their days off spent inside,” said Tanya Bellos, HR Generalist at MediaRadar.



The last few months have seen their fair share of HR curveballs. Looking for a resource to help make sense of it all? Check out our remote work and COVID-19 toolkit for a comprehensive listing of resources, templates, and articles covering everything from how to stay productive to reopening strategies.