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Time Off Policy

We may be well into the new year, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were enjoying the holidays. You know, that time of year when there’s much mistletoeing, hearts are a-glowing… and all of your employees want to take the same week off.

While there are still many months before you have to deal with that particular problem again, there are other times this year when you’re likely to feel the stress of managing multiple time-off requests. It may be as soon as spring break, which is right around the corner. And summer, of course, will always be a popular time for family vacations and long weekends away.

The reality is that managing employee time off is a common pain point for companies of all sizes. Even the biggest, most successful organizations don’t typically have the extra staff or budget to alleviate the strain felt when employees are off the clock. And for a small business, the impact is even greater. The absence of just one person for a day or two, let alone a two-week span, can have a dramatic effect on productivity, customer service and your bottom line.

Work-life balance: core value or pipe dream?

Remember when vacations were actually a time for relaxing? Before laptops and wifi and smartphones, taking time off meant being truly disconnected. Untethered from your desktop computer and landline phone, your coworkers could be furiously putting out fires and burning the midnight oil, while you were blissfully unaware and sipping mai tai’s at the beach.

Fast forward to today’s always-connected world, and time off is rarely work-free.

According to Jen Uscher of WebMD, “If you’re finding it more challenging than ever to juggle the demands of your job and the rest of your life, you’re not alone. Many people are putting in extra hours, or using their smartphones to be on call when they’re not physically at work.”

In a world where you’re always just a text or instant message away, it’s not only darn near impossible to unplug, it’s also changed how we treat time off. Increasingly, employees feel compelled to check in while on vacation, or they’re explicitly asked to do so. Many report feeling pressured to work extra hours before taking time off. Or they simply don’t take time off at all.

It’s such a problem that an organization was formed to address it. Project: Time Off is a Washington, D.C.-based group that’s leading a “national movement to transform American attitudes and change behavior” about taking time off and “disrupting the vacation stigma.” According to their research, there were 658 million vacation days left untaken in 2015. Another survey by Glassdoor found that the average American employee takes only half of their paid time off (PTO), and 61 percent report working while on vacation.

While plenty of companies espouse the value of work-life balance, turns out not enough are actually living it. The truth is that it would be so much easier if people just worked all of the time. Appealing as it may sound, though, it isn’t the cure-all and, in fact, does more harm than good.

Time-off: not just a perk

While you’re not legally required to offer paid time off, it’s safe to say you probably wouldn’t have anyone working for you if you didn’t. To attract new employees and remain attractive to your current ones, you have to offer time off benefits competitive with others. And the research suggests that the benefits extend beyond just recruitment and retention.

According to Inc. contributor Minda Zetlin, “A growing body of scientific evidence explains what many of us have learned from unpleasant experience: Push yourself through too many hours or days of work and your brain starts to push back. Ideas that once flowed easily dry up, and tasks that you should be able to perform quickly become excruciatingly difficult … you need to give your brain, and yourself, some rest.”

Another article in Entrepreneur titled “The Secret to Increased Productivity: Taking time off” asserts that it’s harder to stay focused and solve problems when you don’t give yourself a break. Author Joe Robinson explains that “continuous time on-task sets off strain reactions, such as stress, fatigue and negative mood, which drain focus and physical and emotional resources.”

The body of evidence strongly indicates that time off is critical. While the facts may be straightforward, being both a business owner and supportive advocate can be anything but. So how do you encourage your employees’ mental health without sacrificing your own?

3 simple steps to reduce time-off headaches

Even when you’re committed to doing the right thing, it can be difficult to do it fairly and consistently. If you have a superstar new salesperson that wants to take a week off to work with Habitat for Humanity during the same time that your invaluable right-hand assistant wants to attend her parents’ 50th anniversary party in Florida, who gets the time off? While you may be faced with the occasional dilemma, there are three things you can do to make time off decisions easier.

1 – Create a Formal Time Off Policy

If your company doesn’t yet have a formal paid time off policy, this is the first place to start. You’ll need to make decisions about how much to give employees and how they’ll get it. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Which employees are eligible?
  • Will you grant time off up front or will it be earned over time?
  • How far in advance must requests be made?
  • How will conflicts be decided (seniority, first come first served)?

2 – Communicate About the Policy

In addition to creating a policy, you have to communicate it to your team. You’ll want to review it with every employee and new hire. A common best practice is to require all employees to sign a form indicating that they’ve received and understand the policy. You should also include it in your employee handbook and make it centrally available and easily accessible, like on a shared Google drive.

3 – Share Accountability for Its Success

While you’re responsible for creating and communicating the policy, you can place some of the responsibility for implementation with your employees. This can be as simple as asking them to submit vacation plans on a semi-annual or quarterly basis and talking about upcoming time off as as part of regular meetings. You can also require employees to post approved time off to their individual calendars or a shared calendar and coordinate who will cover their tasks and incoming messages while they’re out.


You genuinely care about your people, and you want to be a good and fair employer. You know that it’s important to give them paid time off, but you also have a business to run.

Regardless of the size of your team, managing time off requests can be tricky. But you don’t have to run your people into the ground just to keep your business running. Having a clearly defined policy will give your employees time to recharge and give you a lot fewer headaches.