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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have transitioned into working remotely from home. Some employees now enjoy increased flexibility with schedules and project timelines. Unfortunately, this has complicated workers’ abilities to disengage from work tasks, which can often be done at any time of day and virtually. After all, what is the point of using up hard-earned paid time off, when an employee can easily change around their schedule to fit in any other obligations?

The situation is complicated by the fact that most people can’t use their time off for typical events or vacations. Pandemic-related concerns have ended most workers’ travel plans, while social gatherings have been modified, postponed, or cancelled. The remaining limited opportunities for leisure or entertainment also do not require taking several days or weeks off. Instead, these shorter, local outings or activities can easily fit around the commitments of a regular work week.

Employees have also recouped more available time during their workdays by not commuting, taking breaks, or socializing during meetings and between tasks. However, that extra time has not gone towards personal enjoyment, but to attending earlier meetings, checking emails, or simply working longer days. Home-related distractions from roommates, family members, and chores have many employees working longer to over-compensate for those interruptions in focus. Some workers may also find themselves frantic to dedicate more time and energy towards job tasks in an effort to show their value to employers and avoid being laid off.

Unfortunately, without time to rest and recharge, employee focus, performance, and productivity are suffering. Time off is so significant, in fact, that research estimates unused vacations cost US businesses $224 billion a year. Stepping away from job tasks, even for a day, provides the mental and emotional relief that allows for better creativity and clarity upon returning to work. Getting appropriate amounts of rest, engaging in physical activity, and socializing with family can improve mood, decrease stress and anxiety, and support overall well-being.

 

Encourage Employees To Take A Break

From an employee’s perspective, time off functions as a way to fit in personal needs and interests; they may be less focused on time off as supportive of wellness and work performance. Companies need to take the lead in encouraging workers to take advantage of this productivity-supporting benefit.

Aside from merely encouraging time off and providing clarity about PTO benefits, employers can institute company-wide days off. If that isn’t feasible, consider rotating set time off for certain teams or departments. This is something that may not work for every business but is an effective way to ensure employees are taking a break. Increasing time off available may also inspire some workers, who may have wanted to hold onto a large chunk of time for future use, to be interested in using a few hours or days off for personal enjoyment.

Above all, it is crucial that employees believe taking time off is actually possible. If a worker is solely responsible for certain tasks and responsibilities, they may never take time off—no matter how much they have. Creating teams can allow workers to lean on one another if they are not available for a period of time and ease the pressure to constantly be available. Additionally, it is important to respect employees’ personal time outside of work hours by not sending messages or requests after hours, on weekends, or during time off. Managers can lead by example by restricting themselves, as well, to working or communicating only within scheduled work hours or taking time off themselves.

 

Reimagine What Vacation Time Looks Like

Another problem lies in recreating what time off looks like for employees; “vacation” time doesn’t need to be limited to vacations. Employers can encourage workers to take more frequent, shorter periods of time off for themselves, even if it is just a half-day. Provide them with alternative options for spending time off. Instead of travelling, employees can spend time working on a hobby, learning something new, or reading a book. While even planning a “staycation” in town may be difficult due to certain local restrictions, employees can still organize activities such as movie nights at home, picnics, outdoor adventures, and game nights. Remind them that using PTO for family time, personal growth, or self-care would be a great way to overcome many of the disappointments and difficulties that have arisen during this particularly stressful, unusual time.

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