Back in early May, executives at The Insurance Market were worried that numerous employees were canceling their summer vacations. The Laurel, Del.-based insurance agency has a "use it or lose it" policy and didn't want its 38 employees to forgo paid time off (PTO), even if they couldn't get away to their usual vacation haunts due to the pandemic.
Company leaders thought it would be too expensive to allow employees to carry over time or pay them for unused vacation days. They considered creating a vacation bank that would accept donations of employees' unused PTO that could be tapped by colleagues facing extraordinary circumstances, but that was found to be too complicated to administer. The company sent employees reminders to start planning their vacation schedules, with few responses.
The PTO issue finally began to resolve itself in mid-June when employees started returning to the office, said Jill Smith, the agency's operations manager. Smith speculated that employees didn't see the point in taking time off when they were working from home just to stay at home.
"I think with remote work, it was hard to separate work from home life," Smith said. Now that there is a boundary, people want to take time off, she explained. "People seem to say, 'I don't want to go to work today,' " she said, adding that the summer weather has also pushed people to use their PTO.
Many HR professionals across the country are struggling with how to convince employees to take vacation. They worry that workers' reluctance to take time off is only adding to the anxiety, stress and other mental health problems caused by COVID-19 and the recession. Fewer employees want to take vacations given that the pandemic has severely curtailed travel options. Some fear that taking time off may make them appear less dedicated or essential, attributes that no one wants to project amid layoffs across many industries.
"It's important for employers to say [to employees], 'We care about you,' " said Jackie Reinberg, North America consulting leader, absence, disability management and life, at London-based Willis Towers Watson. " 'We understand you can't travel. But we know that unplugging from work is important.' "
For many employees, working from home has led them to pour more time and effort into their jobs without realizing it. At Workhuman, surveys showed that employee stress was on the rise and vacation requests were running below 2019 levels. This combination pushed the company to send an e-mail to its 600 employees last month asking each of them to take five days of vacation before the end of August, said Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at the company, which is co-headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, and Framingham, Mass.
"As employers, we have to be cognizant of the mental health impact that the pandemic is having," Pemberton said. "Time off gives you the opportunity to recharge."
The request for employees to take vacation "was met with unbridled appreciation," he said, adding that "acknowledgment is important to people."
Various studies show that the current environment is taking a toll on employees' mental health and fueling workers' reticence about taking time off. For example, from February to June, employees' risk for developing depressive disorders surged 54 percent while the risk of general anxiety jumped 41 percent, according to Total Brain, a San Francisco-based provider of mental health services. Meanwhile, vacation requests fell roughly 50 percent during the initial months of the pandemic. More employees began requesting vacations in June, but they pulled back again in mid-July July as virus cases roared back, according to Zenefits, a San Francisco-based benefits provider.
A Sensitive Topic
Many HR professionals report that they've struggled with how to address this trend because vacation is such a sensitive topic. "[Time off] is the most emotional benefit we have. It is the most valued," Reinberg said. "People don't have a lot of control right now, and they are trying to control what they can."
A substantial number of companies (42 percent) have made or are planning changes to PTO, vacation and sick-day programs, according to Willis Towers Watson. To minimize employees' lost days, 24 percent of companies are planning to increase carryover limits. A smaller share (16 percent) are requiring employees to take vacation time, and another 22 percent are planning to take or considering that approach.
Some organizations, such as the Assure Women's Center in Omaha, Neb., opted to let employees carry over more vacation time. The center, which provides counseling services to women with unplanned pregnancies, depends on volunteers to help carry out its mission. Many volunteers have been reluctant to go to the center amid the pandemic, which made it difficult for the 43 employees to take time off. They are now allowed to carry over two weeks instead of just one.
"It ended up that a lot of people were not able to use their vacation," said Barb Malek, the center's operations director. "They were very relieved [by the change in policy], and we are trying to reward them as much as possible for their work."