Employee Experience

Your paid time off policy needs a mandatory minimum

Historically, employers have considered paid time off to be a necessary evil; hours for which they have to pay employees without reaping any of the benefits of their time. They strictly monitor and track employees’ days off, and dangle additional paid time off as a reward for loyalty as employees’ tenure with the company lengthens. If team members live far away from friends or family, want to take time for a big life event such as a wedding, or if they enjoy traveling, they’re stuck nickel-and-diming their days to minimize the amount of unpaid time they have to take.

Increasingly, startups and other small and mid-sized businesses have been moving towards an unlimited or flexible paid time off policy in which there is no set amount of PTO per year. Under this model, employees are trusted to manage their own time and are allowed to take as many days off as they would like as long as they meet their responsibilities and their manager signs off on it. Few companies however, have mandatory minimums regarding the amount of time off that employees have to take. While it may initially seem counterintuitive, in reality, requiring employees to take a set number of days off per year is one of the best things you can do for your team’s wellbeing.

Why our current approaches to PTO no longer cut it

With the pandemic shutting down travel and forcing many to work from home, paid time off has become a bit of a fiction during 2020. With nowhere to go, and many managers modeling an always-on culture, studies have shown that the workday has elongated by three entire hours. Even once travel and office working resumes, the majority of employees still won’t see a break for some time as everyone will not be able to take time off at once. Vacation days are accruing, but the ability to use them continues to recede further and further into the distance.

Employees feeling that they couldn’t take vacation was already a problem at organizations with ‘unlimited’ paid time off policies. While many business owners may initially view this policy as ripe for abuse by enterprising employees, a study by Namely found that employees at companies with ‘unlimited’ vacation policies actually took an average of just 13 days off per year, compared with those at companies with more standard paid time off policies, who took 15. Additionally, these policies have the benefit to the company of not having to pay out unused days at the end of an employee’s tenure. Perhaps most troubling though, is the fact that culture can make all the difference between employees taking time off when they need, or feeling that they’re unable to take any time off and running headlong towards burnout.

How & why mandating time off can help

Taking time off is crucial to employee engagement and wellbeing. Among employees who take a week or more of vacation per year, 70% say they’re driven to contribute to their organization’s success, compared to 55% who don’t regularly take a week of vacation. Similarly, 63% of employees who take at least a week off say they feel a sense of belonging at their company, as opposed to 43% of those who don’t take time off. Unfortunately, 40% of workers reported feeling that they wouldn’t be able to advance in their careers if they requested time off from their managers, and more than half of employees felt uneasy about asking for time off during the holiday season.

Beyond these stats, or perhaps behind them, there’s the issue of burnout. We’ve written repeatedly about the adverse effects of stress in the workplace, so we won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say that burned out employees are not productive employees. Your team isn’t at their best when they’re exhausted and disengaged. The pandemic has made many feel even more strongly that they can’t justify a break, even though they may need it now more than ever, which is why employers need to step in and begin mandating a minimum amount of vacation time per year. If you want your employees to be at their best, you need to make it clear that taking time off to recharge isn’t just encouraged, but required. You don’t have to reach for the stars here; just mandating that employees take a week off per year will yield significant benefits, as demonstrated by the statistics we mentioned above.

While this effort starts with putting a revised paid time off policy in place, adjusting your company culture and ensuring that managers are modeling taking vacation is what will make or break it. With a minimum required vacation policy, employees won’t have to worry as much about asking for time off, and they’ll feel happier to work for your company knowing that you prioritize their wellbeing enough to write it into policy. If you’re looking for other ways to show your employees that you care and boost your company culture, check out Workrowd, the all-in-one solution for managing employee engagement and company culture across both on-site and remote workers. You can reach us directly at