Creating a Healthy Work-Life Balance: How to Support Effective PTO

“Work hard, play hard.” The idea that vacation time is essential is nothing new, but it’s something that many businesses seem to forget when it comes to putting together a benefits package. Unfortunately, the dangers of “all work and no play” go further than just burnout. Without a healthy balance of personal time (not to mention time for doctors and flat tires,) employees face a number of health risks and also become less effective in their work. Learn now how to foster a healthy work-life balance and support your employees in taking PTO effectively. 

Why is PTO Important?

Burnout is high among all levels of employees, and a major part of that is a lack of work-life balance. Working all year long without adequate personal time is extremely detrimental to your employees and can have lasting effects on their mental health. It can lead to depression and a sense of hopelessness as employees work hard to earn money but don’t have time to spend any of it on themselves. Life cannot be lived in a 15-minute breaks, and your employees deserve the chance to live their lives at whatever stage of life they’re in. 

However, effective PTO is about more than just enjoying life. According to this Forbes article, adequate vacation time is associated with vastly reduced risk of heart disease and related deaths. Foreign travel has also been directly linked to increases in creativity and mental flexibility. It improves sleep, bolsters employees against future stress, and overall benefits wellness and productivity. So not only does PTO help your employees, but it also makes them more effective at their jobs. 

What Are the Different PTO Policy Types?

While there are a wide variety of approaches to PTO, here are some of the more common PTO policy types used in the US today: 

Accrued PTO – With this policy, employees earn PTO according to the hours that they work. This method makes it difficult for employees who may require sick time off sooner than they have time off built up, especially if they don’t accrue PTO very quickly. It can also discourage employees from taking time off when they need it because they want to “save it for later.” 

Prorated PTO – Some companies will offer a set amount of PTO that is made available at the beginning of the year. This offers employees more flexibility about when they want to use their PTO, but it can also cause problems when illness or other factors force them to use up most or all of their PTO early in the year, leaving them with few options later. 

Discretionary PTO – This allows employees to take time off with manager approval without a set limit of days or hours. While this can be very effective at allowing employees to take sick and vacation time as needed, many employers using this method create a culture that discourages any use of PTO or make the application process for PTO excessively difficult out of concern that employees will use too much. 

How Much PTO is Enough?

While science is still on the fence about how much to take per year, this often-quoted study by the Journal of Happiness Studies says that to get the maximum benefits from a vacation, the vacation should last at least 8 days. When you factor in at least one 8-day vacation per year, plus time for sick days, family activities, doctor appointments, and the unexpected emergencies that crop up in adult life, odds are that most companies are falling short of offering adequate time off for their employees’ needs. Big companies like Google are pushing to offer more, giving a minimum of 20 PTO days per year in addition to benefits like increased parental leave. 

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know exactly how much PTO any individual employee will need during the course of a single year. Some people will need more while others will need less, and there is no sure way to predict this. So, instead of asking “how much PTO is enough?” We should be asking “Are my employees’ needs being met?” “Have they taken much personal time this quarter?” and “When was the last time they had at least 8 days of consecutive vacation?”  

Bad PTO Practices to Avoid

Unfortunately, even employees with discretionary or ample PTO often won’t take as much as they need. Many companies, intentionally or not, discourage using PTO through their company culture and policies. Here are some things to avoid that can get in the way of employees taking a healthy amount of PTO: 

  • Excessive Workload: When your employees have more work than they have time for, they’re not going to feel secure in taking essential PTO. For these employees, taking PTO just means a backed-up workload that creates more stress than any vacation can fix.
  • Difficult Approval Process: Do your employees know how to get approval? Can they just ask their direct manager, or are there several levels of approval to climb through? Are their requests likely to be approved if they ask in advance? If PTO isn’t accessible, then it is worthless to your employees.
  • Open Discouragements: Are your managers making comments about how much PTO your employees are taking? Little comments like “Wow, that’s a long vacation” or “How do you still have PTO left?” may seem harmless, but they make employees feel guilty about exercising their contractual right to their PTO.
  • Praising Those Who Don’t Take It: When you praise employees for not taking time off, you’re sending a message to the others that sacrificing their wellbeing will give them more favor in the company’s eyes. In reality, not taking PTO is bad for the employee and for their productivity.
  • Blocking Off Certain Times: While it’s true that, most of the time, not everyone can take all of their time off at once, it’s important that employees are aware well in advance that certain times are either off limits or difficult to schedule PTO for. Otherwise, your employees may be saving up all of their time off for a Christmas vacation that ends up being denied.
  • Not Respecting PTO: What’s the point of taking PTO if your manager is going to be blowing up your phone with texts and emails the whole time anyway? Time off is time off, which means absolutely no work should be happening. Any expectations to the contrary will not only discourage PTO use, but also make that PTO ineffective for any productivity or wellness benefits.
  • Policing Time Off: Are you counting every hour of time away from the desk as PTO? Are employees unable to alter hours around doctor appointments and other non-restful essentials? This may seem like good time management, but you’re really just eating up time that should be reserved for maintaining your employees’ mental and physical health.

How Do I Encourage Employees to Take Time Off?

While it’s important to avoid discouraging PTO, it’s also important that employers take an active role in encouraging it. The American work ethic often pushes employees to feel a sense of guilt for taking time for themselves and feel proud about not taking vacation time. Here are some ways to put your employees in the right mindset to truly benefit from a healthy work-life balance: 

  • Openly Praise PTO: When an employee takes a vacation, make sure they feel good about it! Tell them they deserve it, that they should enjoy it, and to silence their phone so they can truly disconnect. Let them know they have nothing to feel guilty about and that you are happy they are taking care of themselves.
  • Encourage With Reminders: Notice your employee hasn’t had a vacation this year? Ask them if they have something planned and encourage them to get approval in advance. New hires especially can feel nervous about asking for time off when they want to impress you, so make sure they know you want them to use their PTO.
  • Stay Well Staffed: I know, easier said than done, but companies that have enough staff to cover their workload will have healthier, happier, and more productive employees. Not only does it reduce work-related stress, but it makes it easier for everyone to take time off without creating increased work for others or themselves later.
  • Set Expectations Early: Are there certain times of the year when PTO will be difficult to schedule? Do you need employees to not take more than a certain number of days off in a row? Make sure these expectations are discussed early on so employees can plan accordingly.
  • Have a Simple Approval Process: Make your application and approval process involve as few people as possible and keep it straightforward. If you’re emailing 8 people and spending a week coordinating calendars, you need a new system. You should also make sure to go over this process during onboarding.
  • Manage Your Schedule Well: PTO isn’t the only thing that needs to be scheduled well. If the workload is unpredictable and erratic, it’s important that you find ways to schedule it better so employees don’t have to cancel vacations for last-minute projects or changes that should have been planned out at the beginning of the quarter.

But How Do I Prevent PTO Abuse by Employees?

Worried your employees are going to abuse their PTO? This is a common concern, especially with companies that use a discretionary model for their PTO policy. However, the solution starts with trusting your employees more. Trust that you have hired responsible adults who care about their work and about the company. Trust that they are able to make good decisions about personal time without affecting their workload. Most importantly, trust that if they’re asking for time off, they need it. 

Of course, not every employee is going to live up to your trust in them. Luckily, companies have performance reviews. If you notice that an employee is using more than the average PTO and they aren’t getting their work done, talk to them. Are they suffering from health problems? Do they not know how to manage their time effectively? Whatever the issue, work with them, and if it can’t be resolved, then it’s time to hire someone else. When you fill your business with responsible and trustworthy employees, your business will benefit. But punishing everyone out of fear that one person may abuse the system will only cause more problems than it solves. 

An unhealthy workforce fosters an unhealthy company. That’s why it is vitally important to take care of your employees by allowing them the proper personal time—even if that means the company pays more in the meantime. The fact of the matter is that the investment is worth it, offering higher productivity, reduced healthcare costs, reduced turnover, and greater overall job satisfaction from healthier and happier employees. If your employees aren’t taking PTO, it’s time to change that. 


Katie Yelisetti

From marketing tips to product recommendations, I’m here to help small businesses be their best.

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