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What Is PTO? Everything You Need To Know About It — & Why You Should Use It If You Can
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AnnaMarie Houlis image
AnnaMarie Houlis

 Paid time off — Americans are rarely granted enough PTO, though we seldom take advantage of it when we are. That's because we’re a culture of self-prescribed “work martyrs,” encumbered by the idea that no one could do our jobs while we’re away, or otherwise troubled by the perception that we’re indeed replaceable.

It's sort of ingrained in us, possibly because the United States is the only developed country that does not require paid vacation or holidays off; a quarter of Americans aren’t even afforded a single day in the calendar year. That said, the average American employee who can take PTO took just 16.8 days off in 2016 — only an additional half day from the year prior. We’d neglected to take the 662 million vacation days that were left unexploited.

What is PTO?

PTO policies — which allot compensated vacation, sick and personal days off, as well as holidays—are credited to employees’ “banks,” usually every pay period.

This is time for which workers get paid by their companies, even if they aren't actually working. On average, employers in the United States offer 10 paid holidays, two weeks of vacation, two personal days and eight sick days per year. A new trend at some companies allows workers to take unlimited PTO.

How does PTO work?

PTO is often accrued over time, with hours earned and put into a bank based on hours already worked. To use PTO, you essentially take away hours from that earned bank of hours. To use your PTO for one day, you'd be using eight hours of PTO.

Are PTO and vacation time the same thing?

Most of the time, you'll hear the phrases PTO and vacation time interchangeably, but they are not, in fact, the same thing. When you take vacation time (even if it's used for a staycation), you are taking a form of PTO, but PTO can be used for a variety of different reasons other than for taking a vacation. 

PTO can be used to take vacation, to care for a loved one, to take the dog to the vet or something else entirely.

Are PTO and sick time the same thing?

We live in a world where sickness is too often perceived as weakness, and we’re therefore expected to “power through” a day’s work, even if we’re under the weather. That’s perhaps why the U.S. is among the minority of developed countries that does not mandate sick leave at the federal level, unlike France, Germany and so many other European countries. In France, for example, sick leave is linked to social security. But, for millions of Americans, the rule is simple: If you don’t show up for work, you lose a day’s pay.

We don't always understand everything about sick time, so we don't take it. But PTO, when granted, includes sick time, personal days for mental health and bereavement leave. But a 2016 survey released by Wakefield Research found that 69 percent of working Americans don’t take sick days, even when they’re legitimately ill and offered PTO for it. And, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 40 percent of private-sector workers and 80 percent of low-wage workers don’t receive any paid sick leave at all.

Polls do suggest that the American public is strongly in favor of paid sick leave, but progress towards it has been slow. Nearly a quarter of adults have been fired or, at the very least, threatened with the boot for taking time off to recover from an illness or to care for a sick family member or loved one, according to Family Values at Work. This climate is again exacerbated for women, who are still more likely to be primary caregivers and juggle work and caring for both children and elderly relatives than men.

Why Don't Americans Take Advantage of PTO?

Like women and men in most regards, millennial women are more likely than millennial men to say that their vacation time is “extremely” important, according to Project: Time Off’s report, State of American Vacation 2017. We’re more fervent believers in the many benefits of taking time off, more so than our male colleagues. But, for more women than men, high stress, guilt and workload concerns keep us in the office. We report experiencing more stress than men at work (74 percent to 67 percent), and are more likely to say that guilt (25 percent to 20 percent) and the mountain of work to which we’d return (46 percent to 40 percent) hold us back from vacationing.

We also worry more than men about vacation-related absences making us seem less committed to our jobs (28 percent to 25 percent), perhaps due to larger societal implications regarding women in the workplace. Essentially, our heightened perception of the culture of silence surrounding employee vacation surpasses any positive sentiments we have about it. We simply feel like our companies aren’t about it, even when our male coworkers think otherwise. So we don't take the vacations we need.

What are the consequences of not taking PTO?

As Fairygodboss has pointed out before, the fallacy that “work ethic” and “work martyrdom” are synonymous is pervasive — and toxic. Employees who don’t file their PTO are not necessarily more invested; rather, they’re no more likely to earn promotions and are actually less likely to receive raises or bonuses.

Moreover, Project: Time Off senior director and report author, Katie Denis, says that the increase in usage of paid time off in 2016 provided an estimated $37 billion total impact to the US economy. At the same time, the 54 percent of employees who still ended the year with forfeited days cost an estimated $66.4 billion in lost benefits, or $604 per employee. Project: Time Off estimates the potential to create 1.8 million jobs and generate $70 billion in additional income for American workers if we actually took advantage of our PTO policy.

Increased jobs is just an added bonus to the health and career benefits of stepping away from work and recharging every now and again.

Who Is Taking Advantage of PTO?

  • Steel City workers are less susceptible to anxiety about taking vacation; in Pittsburgh, 63 percent of employees confirm they experience work stress, far below the national average of 70 percent.
  • People who work in Orlando also relish in a more optimistic vacation culture — 39 percent of them agree that their company cultures encourage taking time off, compared to 33 percent of us nationally.
  • Likewise, just 14 percent of Phoenix workers, compared to 26 percent of employees on average, will skip vacation to appear more devoted to their duties. They just don’t worry quite as much about the potential to lose consideration for a raise or promotion (11 percent to 21 percent).

Nearly half of Americans cite the colossal amount of work to which they return as the biggest challenge for taking time off. But of the top five cities using the most vacation time, all are less subject to a ceaseless to-do list — Pittsburgh at 37 percent, Chicago at 40 percent, Phoenix at 38 percent, Orlando at 37 percent and Miami at 40 percent.

How Can More Americans Take Stress-Free PTO?

The key to using your PTO without guilt or stress? Planning. The single most effective remedy for American workers who want to use their vacation days but have been thus far apprehensive is simply to plan. More than half of American workers who’ve set aside some hours each year to plan out their vacation days take all of their time off, compared to just 40 percent of those who don’t take the time to take three simple steps:

  1. Deliberate
  2. Budget
  3. Prepare

In fact, those who delineate some sort of agenda for themselves even end up with longer vacations. While three-in-four planners take a week or more at a time, non-planners take just up to three days off, if any at all.

Planning time off not only affords you more days, but it is also associated with increased happiness in every category measured — from their relationships, health and well-being to their companies and their jobs. In fact, planners feel more supported at work when they take time off by both their bosses and their colleagues alike And that boosted professional happiness is reinforced by workplace cultures that encourage vacation — 39 percent of planners say their company’s culture encourages taking time off, versus just 27 percent of those who let their preparations fall to the wayside.

What are the Key Steps to Planning for PTO?

  1. Layer your calendar to find any open opportunities and block those days to avoid meeting invites.
  2. Book plans in advance to give you enough time to get your work done beforehand, and to give others enough time to prepare for your absence.
  3. Make a coverage plan by assigning employees to cover for you — and make sure they’re aware of their duties ahead of time and capable of performing them (employers should be cross-training employees to help coverage situations). 
  4. Put up an out-of-office auto-reply to emails to defer people to those covering for you.
  5. Trust in your coworkers or staff to handle the work while you're gone, so you can enjoy your PTO without stress. Trust will also build workplace morale.

Oftentimes, however, even when an employee arranges for a much-needed vacation and takes the right steps to ensure their workload will be handled efficiently, some companies still dissuade them from taking off the time to which they’re entitled. Two-thirds of us feel like our company cultures are ambivalent, discouraging or send mixed messages about time off — and this has been virtually unchanged since 2014. If workplaces — and managers and company leaders, in particular — talk about vacation’s benefits more openly and proactively, their employees’ habits could shift.

After all, a majority of managers (82 percent) agree that vacation time improves the health and well-being of their staff and boosts morale and work-life balance. They just need to express the following points more often, and much louder:

  • Eighty-one percent say it does indeed alleviate burnout for those on the verge.
  • Seventy-eight percent say it improves employees’ focus levels upon return.
  • Seventy percent agree that it renews employees’ commitments to their jobs.
  • Sixty-four percent feel like it makes their staff more willing to put in long hours when they’re needed.

In short, using PTO for whatever reason necessary is fiscally responsible and beneficial to both the health of the company and yourself. Talk to your employer or prospective employer about your PTO plan or PTO policy, understand your rights, don’t be afraid to negotiate your contract and set the bar for yourself — just remember to plan if you’re looking to flee your cubicle for some sun-swathed beach any time soon.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night. 

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