Why Using Your Paid Time Off Actually Matters
Over the last few decades, workers in the U.S. are slowly but surely using less vacation time. Nearly fifty-five percent of Americans did not use all their vacation days in 2015, and when they do manage to step away, the chances of fully unplugging from work obligations remain low.
It doesn’t help that paid time off policies vary widely, which leaves employees struggling to figure out when taking a day off is “worth” it.
For example, if your sick time, personal time and vacation days are all pooled together in a bank of time off, you might be less likely to stay home when you’re not feeling well, or more likely to try to save unused days if your employer allows.
However, experts say there’s a serious price to pay for nonstop hustle — it might seem classically ambitious, but never giving yourself a break can do harm to your health, relationships, and career in the long run.
Here are 11 reasons to actually use your paid time off.
It Improves Your Health
Taking vacation time away from work boosts energy levels, lowers anxiety and helps protect against illness.
Researchers in a 2016 study found that taking time off work also prevents burnout and supports overall health, because the more we’re constantly “on,” the higher our risk of fatigue and negativity. Physically, you might get sick or rundown due to the body needing more rest. Mentally, your brain basically has a limited number of resources, and at a certain point, you start to feel, quite literally, drained.
“I recommend that employees take paid time off (PTO) because of mental health,” says Oklahoma-based psychiatrist Nicole Washington. “Periodically taking days off to focus on family or self-care can be beneficial to decreasing burnout.”
The difficulty, of course, involves the act of actually disconnecting from work. Even if we leave the office or shut down our laptops, many people still find themselves unable to fully detach for a night or a vacation.
According to the "Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S." by Project Time Off, disconnecting from work gives you an opportunity to recharge and refresh. Without that gap, it’s harder to find the energy to handle challenges, be productive and maintain an optimistic attitude.
It Boosts Productivity
Peter Dudley, former head of team member philanthropy at Wells Fargo, leaned on a company policy in which employees could not donate unused PTO based on the belief that time off was absolutely essential to wellness.
“PTO allows employees to maintain perspective, reduce risk of exhaustion, and refresh their creative energy,” he explained. “Using PTO allows people to maintain strong relationships outside the workplace with children, family, or friends. It allows time for travel, which can broaden an employee's perspective and help with increasing empathy."
He continued: "I know some workplaces encourage employees to donate unused PTO, but I always took those requests as opportunities to encourage employees to use their PTO. People who are always saying, ‘Now is not a good time for me to take off,’ need to understand that there is never a good time to take off — but taking off time is critical to well being, and well employees are critical to the business.”
You’ll Feel More Motivated
On that same note, it may seem like the more you work, the more you can accomplish — except the opposite is true.
Based on one study, employees who trend upwards of 50 hours a week are more likely to see less output than anticipated. Another study discovered that teams who took frequent, short breaks experienced a 13 percent increase in accuracy upon completing tasks.
And in a 2016 experiment, global aviation strategy firm SimpliFlying mandated its employees to take one week off every seven weeks. The result: higher creativity, happiness levels and you guessed it, productivity.
It Will Help You Reconnect With What, and Who, You Love
You’ll also get a chance to remember who you are outside of work, notes UnityPoint Health wellness manager Stefanie Spilde, and devote more time and energy to interests and hobbies, as well as relationships with friends and family.
If you’ve got a side hustle, or keep rescheduling date night with your spouse, then your paid time off gives you the flexibility to take a day here or there to focus on those other important elements of your life that make you a more well-rounded employee.
You can use the time to care for a sick family member, or a family staycation, or work on home improvement projects.
You Deserve It
Also, keep in mind that PTO hours are an essential part of your compensation package at work, whether your business follows a traditional model of doling out hours based on years of service or goes the trendy unlimited time off route.
That’s why Jane Scudder, a certified leadership and career transition coach, likes to remind people to use PTO rather than let it go to waste — because those days and hours cost companies money.
“One thing my clients tend to forget,” she adds, “is that if you are working for a company with unlimited PTO, you are not accruing vacation the same way as someone who earns two weeks a year to start, earns five more days at each five-year threshold, can roll over five days, and can get paid out for up to 15 days. If you have unlimited PTO, when you leave a company, you will not be paid out for anything, which can sum up to thousands of dollars.”
Your Career, and Your Team, Can Benefit
Some research shows that employees who function as “work martyrs” are less likely to receive a raise or be promoted, more likely to feel stressed at home, and more likely to be overwhelmed at work in comparison to coworkers who do take time off.
As much as you may think being available 24/7 or staying at your desk eight to ten hours a day matters regarding career growth, it’s more important to show up as a focused, healthy, happy individual instead.
Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, founder and chief executive officer of I AM MORE, views time off as an opportunity for employers to tune in: when employees take time away from the office, those in charge have time to cross-train others and assess roles of the team.
Leaders Need to Leave Sometimes, Too
Business consultant Sheryl Woodhouse sees similar benefits on the flip side for employees as well, when leaders are the ones to take time off.
“Taking time off is good for your employees and your business,” says Woodhouse. If bosses never leave, their employees will always be dependent on them.
"Going away gives employees the opportunity to step up, learn new skills, take chances, and feel ownership of greater responsibility," she said. "Clients learn to trust your staff. When you take time off and are not there to solve every little problem, your employees discover the holes in your systems and the gaps in their knowledge — gaps that can be solved when you get home, and will improve your business.”
Give Your Subconscious Time to Process
Jonathan Denn of Drumbeat Productivity says he learned early in his career that a project that could look like it might take several hours on a Friday afternoon, if he left it alone until Monday, that same project might only take 20 minutes.
“The brain loves to change topics,” he says. “So taking time away from work gives your subconscious time to process those unfinished tasks, especially very complicated topics with 20 or more variables. How many times have you thought about a really great idea in the shower, walking in nature, talking with a friend, or driving around doing errands? I’m guessing a lot. Just sitting at your desk banging on some drum isn’t the way to high-quality work that will change the world, your business, or your career.”
Chicago-based executive coach Keith R. Sbiral holds the same philosophy:
“Think about it — if you are stumped by a crossword puzzle, what do you do? You put it down and come back to it later. The same is true of your career or job. Not only can you learn from being away and bring back new ideas, you can literally use the break as a reset to come back with fresh eyes. There should be no pride in being the person in the office that says, ‘I haven't taken a vacation in five years.’ Chances are that person simply isn't performing at their best level.”
It Relieves Stress
Maura Thomas, an attention management and corporate productivity expert, says if you don’t use all your vacation time each year because you think you “can’t afford it,” then it’s time to rethink your strategy.
You may not believe you “need” a vacation, either, but that probably indicates you’ve gotten accustomed to a high level of stress, which is not sustainable for your health in the long run.
“The realities of your life include multiple devices that you are connected to all day, a constant deluge of hundreds of emails and other communications, and a spinning brain that keeps you awake at night trying to get everything done and manage all the details of your busy life,” she said.
A vacation gives you the opportunity to temporarily escape these demands, Thomas said.
"Because we acclimate to increased stress levels, most people don’t recognize the toll this environment is taking on them, until that environment changes," she said. "But you only get the full benefits if you actually do disconnect from work.”
Be Open to New Experiences
Without downtime, there’s little space in your day-to-day for new opportunities, Woodhouse said.
“If you're stuck in the middle of a very intense, scheduled work life, there's no room for spontaneity,” she continued.
“Nothing happens that wasn't planned. You accomplish a lot this way, but some downtime is good! It leaves a window for unexpected experiences that you wouldn't have had space for otherwise, and maybe what you didn't realize you needed.”
It Highlights the Impact of Wellness on ROI
Sue Braiden, a communications manager at InspireHUB, calls herself a recovering workaholic who only learned the value of prioritizing time off work after her boss hosted an intervention.
“I showed up for not one, not two, but three meetings in a row wearing my blouse inside out,” she shares. “This is what happens when you love your job too much, and you think coasting on an hour and a half of sleep is okay. My employer sent a note [that said] ‘Seriously — we need to talk about your rest.’”
As a result, Braiden ramped down from an 80-100 hour work week to a more steady 40 hours per week, and she’s seen massive improvements in her physical health, productivity and happiness and creativity levels.
Even though her company offers unlimited vacation, which isn’t the norm for everyone, she said the ability to take time off when she needs it has led to better team loyalty and a family-oriented work culture.