Most people already know that taking time off work is good for you: It's good for employees' mental health and good for business, with potential boosts to productivity and engagement. But is there a certain sweet spot for the amount of paid time off (PTO) workers should take?
Kind of, according to new research: The happiest employees took an average of 15 PTO days last year, according to new data from website CalendarLabs, which surveyed 812 employees in the U.S. and the U.K. and 200 employers for its The Time Off Report.
U.S. employees who work remotely took an average of 14 PTO days last year, compared to onsite employees who took 15 days. But U.S. employees are taking far fewer days off than their U.K. counterparts, who are averaging about 24 days a year.
"Taking time to recharge is essential to avoid burnout," said Hannah Workman, part of the creative team for CalendarLabs. "Employees who don't take PTO could be unhappy at work, considering more than 1 in 5 employees with fixed PTO said they plan to change jobs in the next year."
The new data is particularly timely as scores of employees take time off during the holiday season. December is the most common month for U.S. employees to take PTO, according to the research.
Although the data reveals that the happiest employees take roughly three weeks of vacation per year, it also highlights a couple of problems with PTO that employers may want to address in the coming weeks as the year wraps up - namely, that many employees aren't taking as much time as they're offered.
Nearly 40 percent of employees in the U.S. didn't use all of their allotted PTO last year, according to the report, which found that 55 percent of those workers had to forfeit their unused days. And the majority of employees (78 percent) feel guilty about taking PTO due to concerns about adding to colleagues' workloads or falling behind in their work. Additionally, more than 1 in 4 employees report hesitating to take PTO due to job security fears.
"It's no secret that taking time to recharge is crucial for employees' mental health, but there still seems to be a stigma surrounding taking PTO," Workman explained.
The other problem with PTO is that the majority of workers say they are working even when they're on vacation: 69 percent of employees respond to notifications while officially on PTO, according to the CalendarLabs survey. That's in line with other recent findings from jobs site Monster, which found that 65 percent of employees admit to working on their days off to solve time-sensitive deliverables or support their manager or other co-workers who ask questions or require their response.
So what does this all mean for employers? It might indicate they need to do a better job of encouraging employees to take their PTO - and actually step away from work - so that employees don't burn out, experts said.
"[Employers] should reassure workers they don't have to work on their days off," said Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster. "Bosses should lead by example and not check emails while they're out of the office to set the message of truly unplugging. In turn, this means when they know their workers are on personal time or holiday time out of the office, bosses should not reach out to their direct reports and expect them to respond."
Doing this, Salemi said, can put a worker's mind at ease and help them alleviate stress and anxiety, especially during a high-pressure time like the end of the year.
In the long term, she added, advocating for employees to enjoy time off can help strengthen retention and boost productivity when they return to work after a break feeling recharged.
The good news, Workman said, is that employers are beginning to address the stigmas around taking time off for mental health. The most common way they are addressing this is by encouraging regular check-ins between managers and staff (cited by 55 percent of organizations), followed by providing training or workshops for managers and leaders (51 percent) and providing resources like mental health days (43 percent)
These are positive developments, Workman said, but there's one missing component employers need to step up on: "Employers need to do a better job of ensuring proper coverage while an employee is taking PTO," she said.