Employee Engagement

Best practices for stress-free PTO planning

Have you taken a vacation yet this year? How about your team? 

If you or your colleagues haven't spent as much time out-of-office (OOO) as you'd like this year, you're not alone. Nearly half (42%) of US workers have not taken time off in the past 12 months, a 2022 Eagle Hill Consulting survey revealed. Younger and lower-income workers were the least likely to have taken a vacation, at 50% and 56%, respectively.

After over two years of COVID-19, staff shortages, and layoffs, employee burnout levels are still incredibly high. And we all know how important it is to unplug and how much more we can bring to our work when we rest and recharge. So why are people afraid to take time off?

The reality is employees likely want to take a vacation, but they feel like they can't. For example, a heavy workload, pressure to stay on top of their work, and a lack of colleagues available to cover their workload were some of the top reasons workers cited in the Eagle Hill survey for not taking a vacation. 

Fortunately, if you know why people aren't taking time off, you can start breaking down those barriers to access. With some more intentional PTO planning, you can better support your employees from a practical and psychological level and encourage and enable them to take the breaks they deserve.

How to create an OOO plan to reduce anxiety about going back to work after vacation.

If you've ever taken time off and returned to so much work that you wish you never left, then you understand why some people may not be super keen to take their PTO. While it would be great to be able to simply close our laptops and check out for a week or two, that's not all that realistic. So what's the best way to take time off work and—perhaps more importantly—make space to take time off work? 

Creating an OOO plan will help ease those post-vacation worries and ensure that work gets covered so you won't fall behind. A good OOO plan should also set expectations for the rest of your team, so they know what they'll be working on, and nobody feels like they're out of the loop.

Our 4 step PTO planning guide so you can unplug with confidence. 

1. Get approval for your time off.

A best practice is to ask as far in advance as possible, keeping in mind the length of your time off, and requesting with enough advance notice to plan ahead (of course, there will be circumstances where that’s not possible, like a personal or family emergency). 

When to have this ready: At Blueboard, we build in a week's notice for every day planned to take off. If you plan to take two days off, give two weeks advance notice, and so on. 

2. Inform relevant people (e.g., team members, clients, vendors) about your upcoming time off. 

Depending on your role and work, there may be projects in motion that need a teammate to get them to the next stage or to be completed. Even if you think no action is needed from anyone else while you’re away, this step allows teammates to communicate any plans, meetings, or shared deliverables that might not be on your radar yet and plan accordingly. Add a note in any team meeting agendas or weekly status updates and tag your manager, and any colleagues whose work is contingent on yours.  

When to have this ready: Share planned time off (even if it’s not for sure yet) in any team or cross functional syncs as soon as you request it. That way, the folks you work directly or indirectly with have a heads-up and can proactively check in on any projects, reviews, or shared deliverables to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. 

3. Create your OOO plan. 

This document should include your OOO dates, reachability while away, outline work coverage needs, any relevant project status updates, and key objectives. 

Get started by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What tasks and projects can I complete before I leave? 
  • What tasks and projects can wait until I'm back?
  • What tasks and projects have to be completed while I'm out?
  • Who can I ask for help?

You can use this OOO plan template from GetGuru as a guide.

When to have this ready: Check in with your team and manager, but a solid best practice is to give enough time for people to review and leave any comments or questions––and for you to respond with any answers, if applicable. In most cases, sharing out your OOO plan within 48-72 hours before you’re set to be OOO is plenty of time. 

4. Meet with your manager and team to discuss your OOO plan and get their input before you leave. 

This step will ensure that everybody is informed of and comfortable with the plan so you can fully disconnect while away. This is also a great way to have a check and balance between what you think needs to be done and any areas you might have missed. 

When to do this: After socializing your OOO plan so relevant team members can review, schedule a quick sync to confirm the plan looks good (or, chat about it asynchronously in the document itself, your project management tool, or via Slack).

5. Update your primary communication channels (e.g., email, Slack, etc.) to reflect your OOO status. 

For example, you might want to set up a work email autoresponder or change your Slack status to 'on vacation' and set the dates for while you're out so internal and external stakeholders know when and for how long you're away. 

When to have this ready: Last day before you leave.

Create a folder for your OOO plans in a shared drive so you can easily refer to them and copy and paste the basics to fill in for future occasions. With some dedicated PTO planning supported by repeatable frameworks like the example OOO plan above, taking time off doesn’t have to add stress (or a lot more work!) to your workload. 

Why PTO planning and taking time off matters.

Making the investment to plan ahead and map out a coverage plan is important to truly disconnect from work when out of office. And taking a real break from work (yep, go ahead and delete your work email and Slack from your phone on vacation) is essential to the health of both our personal and professional lives. 

Understandably, taking time off can be easier said than done. Between the ongoing pandemic and a looming recession, it's not hard to fathom why people may be less inclined to take time off. For example, on top of their fears about falling behind on work, your employees may be worried about getting sick while traveling or whether it's a wise financial decision.

Plus, the term ’quiet quitting’ is making headlines and sparked debate around appropriate workplace expectations and boundaries (our take: ‘quiet quitting’ has been mislabeled as doing less when it’s actually about having healthy work-life balance, not overworking, and rethinking taking on extra or invisible work). As a result, employees may be concerned that leadership will view them as less invested in their work if they take time off. 

As Emily Medlen, RevOps Manager at Blueboard, shared in a recent LinkedIn post: "For most of my career, it felt taboo to ask off work early or take a day off. It felt taboo to leave work at a regular time every day. I was accused of not showing commitment. If I left before the leaders, it meant I didn't have grit."

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post with black text on a white background with a story written by someone about why taking time off from work is important for your mental health and overall wellness.
In this LinkedIn post, Emily shares why it’s important to be intentional about taking time off, and a personal story of how she does with creative activities like painting.

Even though more employers are offering perks and benefits that promote work-life balance (e.g., four-day workweeks, mandatory PTO policies), the ‘quiet quitting’ conversation shows that it’s not unreasonable for employees to worry that they will be seen as less invested in their work if they take time off. 

But the research is clear. Taking time off comes with a host of benefits for both employees and the organization. For example, Netflix doesn’t have prescribed time-off policies and instead encourages employees to simply, “take vacation” when they need a break. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings regularly takes six weeks off every year, both for his own wellbeing and to set a positive example for his staff. As Hastings once told CNBC: “You often do your best thinking when you're off hiking in some mountain or something. You get a different perspective on things."

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5 reasons it's essential to take time off work and encourage employees to use vacation time.

1. Improved productivity.

We all have our limits, and several studies show that performance nose-dives when we work for extended periods without a break. In addition, chronic stress can lead to memory issues and make people feel blocked, distracted, and unfocused. 

Research on elite athletes shows that rest is critical to peak performance, and the same is true for regular folks. Regular vacations can help you recharge and approach your work with renewed focus and energy. 

2. Reduced stress.

Let's face it: work can often be stressful. Maybe you’ve been putting in some long hours or working under super-tight deadlines. Whatever the case may be, those ‘Sunday scaries’ can wreak havoc on your body. Chronic work stress can put you at risk for health problems like anxiety, depression, heart disease, sleep problems, and more. 

While a vacation won't completely save you from these adverse outcomes if your regular workload is unsustainable, getting a break from your everyday stresses, even temporarily, can help reduce the levels of stress hormones in your body and help you manage stress in a healthier way. 

3. Better mental health.

Modern work culture often pulls us in a million directions. The constant Slack messages, emails, meetings—the list goes on. When you aren’t necessarily taking time off, but want to let people know how you’re doing, updating your status in Slack (or wherever your company centralizes internal communication) can be a great way to set expectations while communicating your needs. 

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post with black text on a white background by an employee sharing how they added a new Slack update to communicate to their workplace when they're not feeling 100%. There's some emoji icons like a calendar, a bus for commuting, a palm tree for vacation, a battery with low energy for not feeling 100% next to Slack status update examples.
Sharing a personal wellbeing update such as YuLife's ‘not feeling 100%’ Slack status update, is a small but meaningful way to communicate your work capacity.

While there are steps you can take to protect your mental health on the job, sometimes you just need a break. Fortunately, a vacation is an opportunity to press pause on these work obligations and be more mindful and present, which can help improve your mental state. A study on activities that support well-being and stress reduction found that meditation and vacation have "overlapping effects." Both can lead to higher levels of well-being, positive affect, and mindfulness. 

4. Greater creativity.

Did you know Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea for Hamilton while on vacation? Now we can't guarantee you'll conceive a record-breaking musical on your next trip to Costa Rica. But plenty of research shows that rest can boost creativity because your subconscious mind keeps working on problems and coming up with ideas, even when you're not actively working. 

5. Better work-life balance.

Taking a vacation doesn't just make you a better worker. It makes you a better human being. Our experiences outside of work shape who we are, and there's only so much life you can take in when tapping away at a laptop. 

As Blueboard Director of Content Natasha Wahid shared in a recent community newsletter:

"Our lives are so much more than work. And we're able to bring so much more to our work when we're truly living our lives. When we're rested and nourished and full." –  Natasha Wahid, Director of Content, Blueboard

How to write an engaging, effective OOO email autoresponder message.

Your out-of-office email autoresponder can be a pretty powerful tool in your PTO planning arsenal. As Taylor Smith, Bluboard's CEO and co-founder, recently told WorkLife: "Out-of-office messages are a unique medium that anyone who reaches out to you is going to receive back."

An OOO message can help people get to know you better, highlight your company's culture, and set an example for others.

For example, most OOO messages go something like this:

"I'm out of the office with limited internet access, so my responses may be delayed. If you need an urgent response, please contact my colleague [NAME] at [EMAIL ADDRESS]. Otherwise, expect a reply as soon as I get back."

At first glance, this message may seem harmless, but it sets some pretty steep expectations. First, this responder communicates that you'll respond to emails while away. It also puts pressure on your colleague to immediately reply to any inquiry passed on to them. Lastly, it tells the recipient they can expect an almost-immediate response when you return. 

In comparison, let's look at a recent OOO note written as a work email auto-response from Natasha Wahid, Blueboard's Director of Content: 

See? OOO auto-responses can be fun! Natasha shows us how it's done with humor and style.

What's different here? In this message, we learn a bit more about Natasha and what she likes to do during her time off. These little personal nuggets act as connection points that can help strengthen relationships with her team and external stakeholders. 

She's also set clear expectations and modeled some healthy work-life boundaries for her autoresponder recipients. For example, we can see that she will be entirely unavailable and unplugged while away. Lastly, she's giving herself the space to ease into her typical workflow by stating that she'll respond as soon as she can rather than as soon as she gets back. 

Set you and your team up for OOO success (so you don’t have to worry about time off).

Effective PTO planning and communication (and managing the anxiety and guilt that often comes with it) ultimately comes down to time and expectation-setting. 

When you give yourself and your team enough notice and time to prepare, you won't feel rushed as you get closer to your dates or feel as much pressure to work while you're off. And when you set clear expectations around your time off (e.g., reachability, work coverage, key objectives, etc.), it'll be easier to unplug when you're OOO without feeling like you're letting anyone down or falling behind. 

Lastly, how you talk about time off matters. Rest isn't something you need to apologize for—it's essential to our well-being and should be normalized as a "need to have" part of workplace culture. When you approach and talk about PTO planning from a place of celebration rather than stress, it can help reinforce the pro-OOO mindset and encourage others to take the time they need to take care of themselves.

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