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Why You Should Take All Your PTO Days

You're pouring money down the drain.

by Gretchen Brown
July 8, 2019 | Work

My dad never used all his vacation time.

When he did take a day off, he’d often work remotely from wherever we were, bringing his clunky '90s business laptop to the lake, or taking a call in the minivan.

That kind of attitude around work, and around time off, rubbed off on me. I know I’m supposed to use all my paid time off. It’s an earned benefit, and it’s there for a reason.

But when it comes to actually requesting time off, I can’t help but feel guilty.

I’ll take a day here or a day there when I need to. But over the past two years, I took only about 7 days total off of work, and never consecutively.

I’m not the only one doing this. According to a report from the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off, 52 percent of American workers had unused vacation days in 2017.

The average American private sector worker gets just 10 days off a year. And we’re one of the few countries that doesn’t require employers to offer paid time off. (A quarter of Americans don’t have any paid days off at all).

Millennials are workaholics. But there are real reasons to use those days off — all of them — if you’re lucky enough to have them.

1. PTO is part of your paycheck

This can be a hard pill to swallow, but if you’re not using all your PTO days, especially those that don’t carry over year-to-year, you’re dumping money down the drain.

Illustration of man half in business suit, half in beach wear. PTO pbs rewire
According to the Project: Time Off report, workers who took all their time off were happier with their health, relationships, company and career.

“Would you not accept your full paycheck? Would you give a little back and say ‘I don't need this much?’” clinical psychologist Karin Lawson said. “If your boss is having difficulty with your work-life balance, that's their struggle. Don't make their issue your issue.”

This is especially good to remember if you're employed in a “workaholic” environment, where other people aren't taking vacations, either.

If you’re not using it, you’re not being very business savvy.

According to the same U.S. Travel Association study, most managers believe using time off is important.

But the message seems to get lost in translation: according to the study, “67 percent of employees said they heard either nothing, mixed messages, or negative messages about taking vacation time.”

Some call this “vacation shaming,” where overwhelming workloads and offhanded remarks from coworkers and management discourage folks from taking all their earned days.

It’s why most of those companies offering unlimited paid time off are too good to be true (most workers with this benefit actually use fewer days).

[Read: College Graduates Are Working Harder But Earning Less]

2. Time off is healthy!

Aside from the fact that paid time off is something you’ve earned and deserve, it’s also just really good for you.

Time off won’t make up for a stressful work environment, but it will help you feel recharged. It can also help you avoid — or pull yourself out of — burnout.

“People often misunderstand that if they work more they'll be better at their job,” Lawson said. “Burnout actually doesn't help us with efficiency or effectiveness or creativity; it hurts it. Similar to sleep, time away allows work-related tasks to continue to percolate in the back of our minds (out of our consciousness), which can often lead to better solutions.”

It’s like how you think of all your good ideas when you’re in the shower. An idle mind can be a good thing.

According to the Project: Time Off report, workers who took all their time off were happier with their health, relationships, company and career.

Research shows that taking time off increases your chances of getting a promotion, and can make you happy and more productive.

[ICYMI: Stop Wearing Your Work Addiction Like a Badge of Honor]

That comes with a caveat. Some vacations — particularly ones with lots of high-stress travel — can actually make you more stressed, or not reduce stress at all.

That’s a good reason to not just take time off when you’re going out of town, but to also take time for a staycation every once in a while.

“Some people feel they should only take PTO if they are going on a proper holiday,” clinical psychologist Tricia Wolanin said. “We feel staycations aren't worthy of using PTO, but we need to take advantage of these days off. There is no reason to feel guilty. Taking time off, whether at home or on vacation, refuels and restores us.”

Project: Time Off says workers have been taking fewer days off every year since 2000, and millennials have latched onto that trend. They’re more likely to shame their coworkers for going on vacation, and more likely to say they’re serious about it.

They’re also more likely to say they’re worried to take their own vacation time, for fear they’ll lose their jobs.

The good news: millennial managers are more likely to believe that time off is good for their workers.

So in an age of what some say is generational burnout, managers can help lead the way to a healthier work culture.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at gb[email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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