When Crystal Brown-Tatum, a human resources manager at Dallas Summer Musicals, noticed that her staff members were accruing more paid time off (PTO) during the pandemic than they would be able to roll over in 2021, she sent out a list of road trips for employees to consider taking. She also suggested that employees reduce their workweek by taking a Friday or Monday off each week until the end of the year.
John Linden, an interior designer at MirrorCoop, a custom-mirror company in Los Angeles, was so desperate for employees to take time off that he began buying them tickets to local museums so they might consider fun and socially distanced activities for their days off.
As health officials urge everyone to stay close to home and limit contact with people outside their households during the winter holidays to stop the spread of the coronavirus, many workers are reluctant to use their PTO—even after they postponed summer vacation plans. According to global staffing firm Robert Half, 28 percent of U.S. office workers anticipated taking fewer days off in the summer months compared to last year because of concerns about COVID-19.
Some employees have taken limited or even no time off this year because they feel as though they are restricted with travel options,” said Tracy Winn, SHRM-SCP, a senior HR advisor at G&A Partners, a payroll and HR firm in Houston. Some employees might not even realize how much PTO they have accrued this year, so it’s important for managers to let staff know how many PTO hours they have, especially if company policy limits the number of hours that can be rolled over to the next year.
To encourage more employees to take time off before Dec. 31, HR professionals are urging managers to think creatively about how to use vacation time. “While traditional vacations and large events are not available to all employees this year, the best thing we’ve done to support our team is reframe what time off could look like,” said Courtney Wilson, head of people operations at HealthJoy, a Chicago-based benefits platform.
Focus on Shorter Breaks
Many companies are encouraging employees to take off half days, a day in the middle of the week, or a Monday or Friday to extend the weekend. “Employees may wonder what to do with a week off all at once, so encourage them to take a long weekend, or even a day in the middle of the busy workweek, for a few weeks in a row to lighten their workload,” Winn said.
Tami Wolownik, human resources head at Siemens Mobility, North America, a transportation consulting firm in Alpharetta, Ga., suggests that managers encourage employees to take a day or two off to focus on family; provide caregiving; volunteer; engage in self-care and hobbies; or do traditional holiday activities such as wrapping presents, decorating their homes or baking cookies.
“With the holidays coming up, we’ll continue to remind employees that taking time to recharge benefits everyone, and it will help them be in a better mindset for what will hopefully be a much less chaotic 2021,” she said.
Give Permission to Take Time Off
Employees often postpone PTO because they worry about who will take up the slack while they are out, said Laura Handrick, a contributing HR professional at Choosing Therapy, a Brooklyn-based website that helps educate the public about the benefits of therapy.
“Managers who meet with their staff prior to them taking PTO can brainstorm with them about who in the company is best to take over each task, project or client while they’re out,” Handrick said. “This helps reassure the employee that they can truly take time off to relax with family without feeling guilty or stressing out about checking e-mail and phone messages.”
Managers might also consider reducing the number of meetings around the holidays, or making Mondays and Fridays meeting-free days from Thanksgiving until the end of the year to encourage employees to extend their weekends.
Lead by Example
One of the best ways for managers to encourage their staff to take time off is by taking PTO themselves. Managers at HealthJoy are encouraged to talk with staff about their own planned time off, including sharing what they’re looking forward to during their time away, Winn said.
Managers are also encouraged to be vocal about taking shorter amounts of time off. “When managers are intentional about making time for themselves during the day—blocking time to eat lunch, regularly scheduled personal development, being strict with their work and nonwork hours—their teams have followed suit,” Winn said.
It’s important to start having conversations about holiday plans with staff now, even if it’s just small talk about how they plan to take a break before the end of the year, MirrorCoop’s Linden said. “Then you know what they have planned, and you can encourage them to follow up on it and take the time off.”
Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.