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Your World Needs You To Use Your PTO

And use it well


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Shane Kinkennon

2 years ago | 5 min read

My colleague Nicole reminded me of a piece of tough love I dropped on her a few years ago, something that unfortunate folks for whom I have affection are occasionally asked to endure.

Nicole was the VP of marketing for a business unit of a major regional hospital system that was a client of mine at the time. While Nicole is talented and capable, the expectations of her during that particular period bordered on outlandish.

Yet dutiful and positive, Nicole worked tirelessly to push that rock uphill. That includes one particular week during which she was deathly ill. Soon afterward she rattled off to me a sampling of the tasks she’d performed for her boss while bedridden.

Before I could shut my pie hole, the words escaped, easily a week’s worth of snark delivered in one dry lump dose: “Huh. Did they give you a medal for that?”

When Nicole reminded me of that moment recently, I cringed. (My spouse likes to say, “It’s amazing that people like you as much as they do, considering some of the things that come out of your mouth.”) Thankfully Nicole urged me not to feel too bad because the moment jarred her to reestablish the balance that she’d allowed to erode. She’d gone all in at the expense of her PTO, her family life, her sanity, and maybe even her performance.

And she really took what she learned to heart. Nicole soon pivoted to become an executive coach who, among other things, helps women clients who are business leaders to set better boundaries. You’ve got to love that. And she’s crushing it.

Nicole Provonchee of Bright Blue Consulting these days, leading a workshop of women business leaders.

How is it that smart, successful people decide to work while on vacation or while sick? Why don’t people use their PTO? When I did research for this article, I came across this shocking gem.

It’s a 2018 op-ed in USA Today that makes the case for working during vacation. (What!?) It cites a study that found that a quarter to a third of people say they enjoy vacation more if they work some during it. I had to re-read the article to be sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks.

Umm, no. Why do I even need to say this? Use your PTO. Use it for real by actually unplugging while you’re away. That means don’t work! Check out! Set yourself up to be covered at the office. Delegate! Go spend time with your family or friends or whatever it is you do that you find head-clearing and refreshing.

I’m familiar with the argument that doing a bit of work between beaching and day drinking in Cozumel reduces the backlog, and there is a measure of peace of mind that comes with that.

But the cost of a compromised rejuvenation opportunity is too high. And it sort of misses the point of, you know, vacation! Go focus on your sugary cocktail!

And then the people who don’t use their PTO at all: upwards of 52% of Americans leave vacation time on the table at the end of each year according to one study. 768 million vacation days were forfeited in 2018. That means roughly half of the people who’ll read this article may well end the year leaving PTO on the table. Really? (I know 2020 is exceedingly bizarre and disrupted, but still. Netflix.)

Let me help you.

Your family needs you to do use your PTO, and use it for real. While I probably don’t know you personally, I’m pretty sure your spouse and kiddos would rather have you present and attentive during your RV trip to Yosemite than thumbing through work email. And when you’re sick, what heals you up is rest. Not working.

Your body needs you to use your PTO for real. The American Psychological Association is clear: you need legitimate time away to reduce stress and avoid burnout. So, step away and check out completely. Statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as more happiness and lower stress both in work and at home.

Your employer needs you to use your PTO for real. The place where you work needs to you to take the paid time away that you’ve earned. You do better work when you’re charged and energized! Across a workforce, that can make a measurable difference in productivity levels.

And your employer certainly doesn’t need the liability of unused PTO on the books. One study found American companies carry $224 billion in unused PTO. Yikes.

Photo by TypoArt BS purchased on Shutterstock

OK, maybe you work for one of those sad supervisors who passive-aggressively shames PTO usage. Don’t let them get away with it when it comes to you.

Hold your ground, please, as this article by Leslie Stevens-Huffman urges. “Don’t apologize or capitulate to co-workers who try to make you feel guilty for taking some well-deserved time off,” she writes. Your PTO is part of your paycheck. Use it.

Pro tip: Get your work done before you leave. Formulate detailed plans for how your responsibilities will be covered while you’re out. Imagine and account for every scenario. Be sure people who might be affected are bought in. Then walk your boss, peers and staff through all of that. It takes time and energy, I know, but it’ll give you confidence to turn off your devices and fully, completely check out. And it reduces the likelihood of surprises when you return, or the likelihood of guilt trips upon reentry because someone had to pick up slack against their wishes during your absence.

Finally, if you’re a leader, think about the signal you send your team if you work through your vacation or work while sick. You telegraph that it’s what’s expected. Is that what you want to convey? Sure, you can tell your staff that you don’t expect them to work while using PTO. Yet it’s your actions that give them their cues, not your words.

And the more senior you are, the more powerful leadership-by-example signal that you send. Show me a CEO who works through vacation and I’ll show you a company full of people who do exactly the same thing, whether or not it’s good for business performance.

If you want your team at the very best, encourage them to use their PTO to its fullest and to log off completely when they do.

And when they’re sick, let them curl up in peace with a blanket, chicken soup, and NyQuil until they’re better. Don’t guilt them into monitoring email or joining calls, or even allow them to do it. You’ll get a more dynamic, engaged version of then when they return, and in general.

The longer you burn without rest and reset, the dimmer you the light you emit. Want to be a creative problem solver? Want to find a fresh perspective? Want to take your eyes off the trees and once again see the forest? Take a few days away from work. Log off completely. Go analog. Don’t check in. Connect with family and friends. And be shocked at how well you perform when you get back in the saddle.

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Shane Kinkennon

Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.


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