PTO helps workers avoid burnout and thrive at work. So why is it so hard to get people to take it? Tanya Ott talks to Deloitte’s Melanie Langsett and Nicole Nodi on how better policies can help.
"Ever since 2008, 2009 and the job losses and fear that came with that, fear has been more deeply ingrained about losing your job, about sudden unemployment, and an at-will employment environment. Now we’re hitting that again."
—Nicole Nodi, research lead, Center for Integrated Research, Deloitte Services LP
"It’s not about how many hours you’re working or how many hours am I seeing you sitting at your desk, but rather, what is the output? What’s the impact that your work is making? "
—Melanie Langsett, US leader for reward, recognition and well-being, Deloitte Consulting LLP
Tanya Ott: When’s the last time you took some down time and really disconnected? Chances are you’re not doing it nearly enough.
Tanya: I’m Tanya Ott and this is the Press Room, the podcast where we talk about some of the biggest issues affecting business today. Whether you’re the boss or not, how you handle time off can affect your company’s bottom line. There’s plenty of research to show that taking a break—no matter how small—can have a big impact on what you’re able to accomplish.
My guests today dig into that research in a paper titled The disconnect disconnect: Aligning culture and policy to mend the rift between needing time off and taking it. Melanie Langsett is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP. She’s the US leader for reward, recognition and well-being.
Melanie: Which includes the way in which we offer our people time off for them to recuperate and recover.
Tanya: And Nicole Nodi is a research lead in Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research. She has an MFA in literary translation, so when she takes a break at work you might find her doing something kind of unusual …
Nicole: When my brain gets in the mood, sometimes I’ll just pick up a book of Spanish poetry and see if I can tackle a sonnet and see how it goes to see how it feels. And it always feels really good.
Tanya: I started our conversation by asking about the science behind taking time off.
Nicole: Without time off, without breaks, we tend to lose things like our capacity for learning, for cognition. It can affect safety in the physical workplace. It can decrease our ability to be creative and to innovate, in addition to increasing the likelihood of negative mental health outcomes, from burnout to more serious things like depression or even suicidal thoughts.
Melanie: The ability to retain focus and that mental capacity that Nicole was speaking to, there’s tremendous scientific research that says that we need to build those moments of time off or time away or change of focus every 90 minutes. We need those time off periods, if you will, in small bursts every single day and in bigger bursts as well.
Tanya: I was talking to a woman online recently who said what she did. She follows a certain kind of method and I don’t remember what it’s called, but it is exactly that idea, Melanie, where she works for 40 to 60 minutes and then she takes 15 minutes and does something that’s not work. Then she resets and that’s like an all day long thing. And that kind of speaks to what you’re talking about.
Melanie: Exactly. And creating the capability and the capacity to apply those human enduring capabilities around innovation and creativity, when we stay task-focused for too long, we’re shutting down that capacity within our brains.
Tanya: So in this COVID time, does zipping over to my laundry room and pulling out the stuff in the dryer count as time down? Does that really have a benefit for me?
Melanie: It absolutely does, believe it or not. Even if you’re still sitting in your desk but taking your eyes off your screen, keeping a book of poetry at the side of the desk and spending five minutes, 10 minutes, just focusing on something different will allow your brain to reset and then come back with greater capacity.
Nicole: Like an Etch-A-Sketch effect. You need to shake it in order to clear it. It also works when you physically go upside down, but I don’t think you necessarily need to do that for safety reasons.
Tanya: Everyone now, inverted yoga poses in the office.
Tanya: Despite the evidence that time off can help workers avoid burnout and help them perform at their highest levels, a lot of workers have not been taking enough of it, even pre-COVID. Why not?
Melanie: I’ll start on this one and then let Nicole share her points of view, but there’s a number of reasons for that. I’ll start with there’s a fear of missing out that many professionals, in particular, suffer from. In a world where every organization says that they pay for performance, and that most performance measures can be focused more on activity than outcome, it’s somewhat counterintuitive, but what it does is it drives the behavior of, “Well, if I’m not working then I am negatively impacting my own performance and I might miss out on an opportunity.” [It might be] an opportunity to engage with a leader, an opportunity on a neat project or whatever that might look like for that individual. So that’s one reason.
Another is, and I will use a personal example from this week, we had the opportunity to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday on Monday, and we had a holiday associated with that. And I disconnected. But there weren’t any work fairies that came in behind me and took care of those things that were on my plate. So I took that work and then turned a four-day workweek into five days’ worth of work over those four days. Sometimes there’s a perception that it isn’t worth me taking the time off because I’m just going to have to work harder, either before I am off or after I return from that time off.
Then the third that I would observe is the cultural implications in many organizations is that my leaders, my peers, and my teams don’t respect my time away. It becomes more frustrating to say that I’m taking time off, whether it’s in a vacation or holiday setting, and still get pings, emails, texts or scheduled meetings during that time. So those are the three reasons people are not as apt to take the time off that they are offered and that they should.
Nicole: There is just a general sense of fear. Ever since 2008, 2009 and the job losses and fear that came with that, fear has been more deeply ingrained about losing your job, about sudden unemployment, and an at-will employment environment. Now we’re hitting that again. You feel like, well, I could be the next one to go and I can’t afford that. I can’t let that happen. So you don’t want to step away. You don’t want to vacate. You cling.
And then even when you do take time off, like Melanie said, people are always getting in touch with you and it really reflects back on you and how you feel about yourself as a worker. Am I working hard enough if I’m taking time off? But everybody else is still working, even if it’s the weekend. Or my boss is emailing me. so obviously I should be available. Or, even with the pandemic, well, everybody knows that I’m not in Europe or on a beach somewhere, so there must be an expectation that I should respond.
Tanya: So much of what we’ve talked about so far is really related to the pressure that we’re putting on ourselves, either because we’re afraid of missing out on something or we think that because we’re stuck at home, those of us who are able to work from home during the pandemic, that we should be always reachable. But are there policies or other structures that are put in place within some organizations that really make it hard to take the time off?
Melanie: I think it’s both: I’ll call it programmatic design of time off, as well as some systemic and cultural considerations. There are many different ways in which organizations provide paid time to their workforce to be away from work, and then there’s the unpaid time, like the nights and weekends, as well. So I would not want to ignore the fact that within each of our days we should be taking the time that we need away from work and making that part of our daily habits. Organizationally, many companies reward through their incentive programs, through their performance management programs, those who work longer hours. Those who have more face time—I know that’s a concept we used to talk about a lot ... now face time’s become Zoom face time—but it is something that has been embedded in a lot of cultures that are counter to people taking time.
Many years ago, organizations started to combine sick days and their vacation days into what is commonly known now as paid time off. There was a model that said, when you joined us, you earned X number of days and you had to accrue those throughout the year. As your tenure increased, you earned more of those days. The evolution of the introduction of paid time off, the next generation of that, has been for some organizations going to unlimited time off. What’s interesting about the organizations that have tried that model is that they’ve actually found that people took less time.
Tanya: So how does it actually work? Let me dial back for a second. Like, basically, they say you can take unlimited time off?
Melanie: Yes. And it’s at the discretion of the worker and their manager to approve that time. You’re putting a lot of onus on the manager in that approval process. You’re putting a lot on the team. If there’s an individual who says I want to take three weeks off, as an example. But what really has happened is that individuals had historically said, I have 10 days, 15 days, 20 days, whatever their allocation was, and so I’m going to look at my year and I’m going to plan how I’m going to use that time because I don’t want to lose it. But in an unlimited PTO model, more often than not, there is no lose it. There can’t be because you could take as much time as you want. So for individuals, it’s a reverse psychology. They actually take less time off. Many organizations that introduced unlimited paid time off have actually reversed that decision and gone back to a more traditional model.
Tanya: That’s interesting!
Nicole: Or they’ve had to augment with other policies. You know, we mentioned things like mandatory minimum collective or incented time off where companies have had to really tweak this. This is a positive cultural thing where companies have said, “OK, people aren’t taking advantage of this, how can we make sure this happens?” So they add these additional policies on top to encourage people to take some time.
Melanie: Like a collective disconnect, if you will.
Tanya: So shutting down completely during this time period, or whatever.
Melanie: Right. It’s something that we’ve historically seen in a manufacturing environment. It was not uncommon for manufacturing companies to shut down the week between Christmas and New Year’s every year. There are very good reasons for that. In the financial services industry, there are jobs where people have to take time off because their work has to be audited, so that’s been part of their culture over time. But we’re seeing these collective disconnects in more industries now because of the need to really encourage people to take time off. If everyone’s off, that minimizes the disruptions that would potentially occur when I take a day, but everyone else is working, [along with countering] that fear of missing out and all the other impediments that we talked about.
I want to flip the script and talk about the positive things that organizations are doing, because this is something that many, many companies recognize that they need to address. They’re hearing it from their workforce, but they are also seeing it in impact on productivity, impact on physical well-being, impact to mental well-being, so they’re proactively looking at ways to improve. The collective disconnect that Nicole mentioned is one of those. We’re seeing more and more organizations really thinking about, “Where in the natural cycles of our business can we create opportunities for everyone to take time off?”
We hear a lot about organizations who do what used to be called summer Fridays, so they, for a period of time will have an early shutdown every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day as an example. So go from a five-day workweek to a four-and-a-half day workweek. Or create an environment where individuals can self-select where they want to create three-day weekends. So it’s more of that time off in the flow of work, as opposed to big chunks of time.
But one of the leading practices that we see is really a cultural focus on respecting people’s time away: Creating within business teams, within work teams, norms that work for that group where they collectively agree what the start and end times of their normal workday will be, when they’re committing to being accessible to one another and when they’re going to respect one another’s time away, whether that’s because of daily responsibilities for family, commitments to training and working out, and things of that nature. Teams themselves work together to set what those standards are going to be about, what the workday is going to look like, and their commitment to respect one another. We see that working very, very effectively.
Nicole: And Melanie, if I could add to that, the tenet that really comes behind that is trust. Building trust with your teams that somebody is going to be able to support you while you’re out, so you don’t come back to a mountain of work. Trust with your manager that you are getting your work done and that you taking time off isn’t going to be detrimental. There’s trust with leadership that, yes, things are going to get done, but there’s also the reverse where the employees need to trust their leadership, trust their managers, that this is real, that the leadership, they’re going to be taking time off and they’re not going to be emailing. They’re going to disconnect. That the manager is going to take time off so that there’s this ability to build this respect and build this trust in a robust way to ensure that people can take time off, [so] it doesn’t become something anxiety driving, rather than relieving.
Melanie: It’s an excellent point, and what we’ve seen during the pandemic is that leaders have had to trust their workforces in ways that they’ve never been stretched to do before with the focus on measuring outcomes versus activity. That’s very positive and hopefully something that we’ll be able to pull forward postpandemic, that it’s not about how many hours you’re working or how many hours I see you sitting at your desk, but rather, “What is the output? What’s the impact that your work is making?,” and really measuring that, which will allow people to take that time off that they need.
Tanya: Have you seen examples of employing technology, automated technology, or other things like that that help with relieving that burden?
Melanie: I could absolutely see where technology could be applied with the right AI to get rid of the junk that comes through many of our email inboxes.
Nicole: There’s also the opportunity to sort of show employees how to hide the work email on their phones. Where it’s possible, it is nice when you have a separate personal phone and work phone. There are also things like companies can manually block time on employees’ calendars or you can do that on your own, whether that’s for working more intensively and more quietly without interruption or for being out of office or generally unavailable.
Tanya: So what’s the big takeaway for you two as we’re looking to the future on this in terms of, whether it’s technology policy or otherwise, what do leaders within organizations need to be thinking about?
Nicole: We need companies to find a way to make their culture mesh with their policy, to build this trust with their workforce, that they can actually take time off when they need it, that they’re not going to get in trouble, that it’s not going to cause them to be one rung lower on the “could get fired ladder” or something like that. Whatever your policy is, even if you’re not going to overhaul it, it’s respected, that time off that is earned is your time off to take as you need.
Melanie: I couldn’t agree more with what Nicole said, and maybe I’ll say it a little bit differently—let’s walk the talk.
Nicole: Oh yeah.
Melanie: If leaders are transparent about how important they believe that rest and recuperation [are] to themselves and to their workforces, then the workforce will believe it and they’ll become much more comfortable taking the time that they need.
Nicole: I’m looking at small shifts in cultural norms to just start out that larger cultural transformation, things like making [being] busy not a sign of pride, that always being online, regardless of whether you’re being productive, shouldn’t be looked at as a really positive thing for you to be doing. This phrase has been coming up lately and it’s true—what is your [rest] ethic? When do you need to take time off? Is it after a project? Is it in the summer because your kids are off of school? [Do] you need to go visit elderly family out of state? Things like that.
It’s not just about taking those long breaks. there’s also the sort of concept of time off microdosing. That’s basically a practice that you can start with yourself so that you can disconnect in these small ways to sort of build up your tolerance so that when eventually you get to take a week off, it doesn’t take you until Friday to relax enough to be off.
Melanie: I love that Nicole. It’s a muscle that you have to build.
Tanya: Makes me want to go take a vacation. I’m just going to say, but where would I go? Maybe to the living room? I don’t know. Nicole, Melanie, thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation today.
Melanie: Lovely to meet you. Thank you.
Nicole: This is wonderful. Thank you so much, Tanya.
Tanya: Melanie Langsett is a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP and Nicole Nodi is a research lead in Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research. You can find their paper The disconnect disconnect: Aligning culture and policy to mend the rift between needing time off and taking it at Deloitte.com/insights.
I joke about taking a vacation to my living room, but really—small steps can make a difference. About a year ago, I added two sentences to my email signature line. It says, “My work hours may not be your work hours. Do not feel obligated to reply outside of your normal schedule.” I cannot tell you how many people have reached out to me to ask if they can copy and paste it into their emails. It really resonates.
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