I live in a country where it is standard to give employees two weeks of paid time off (PTO) per year. Ten days out of over two-hundred fifty working days in a year. Many companies will also only include 6–8 holidays over 12 months.
Let’s say I come from a big family, and I want to find time to visit different parts of my family, the bulk of whom also live halfway across the country. If I worked for one of these companies and I visited my family for one week around the Christmas holiday—about 1–2 days per section of my big family—I could get away with taking only 4 PTO days. Now, imagine that my partner also has a family and we would like to see them too. While they are closer, they are still a 12-hour drive away. If we take a very short trip and only spend 3 days with them, I could plan it for a weekend, and then only take 3 more PTO days—2 days of driving and 3 days of visiting over 2 days of a weekend.
Now, imagine my partner and I have been together for a few years and we’d love to take a simple vacation together for one week to New Orleans, an affordable and drivable destination from Austin. Well, if we time it just right and align it with one of the very few 3-day holiday weekends, we could manage to pay holiday rates to take one day less than a week of vacation with my remaining 3 days of PTO, and come straight back to work for this type of company.
That’s it. For the year. We are able to take a total of 3 trips, see my large family once for no more than 1–2 days per person, see my partner’s family no more than once, and have just one cheap vacation together, for less than a full week. 3 days of PTO spent on my mental well-being with my partner and 7 days spent fulfilling family obligations.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see my mom more than 1–2 days a year. It would also be nice if I could see my newborn nephew for more than one evening in his entire first year on the planet, or in fact if I could see my cousins at all. Taking small day trips with my grandparents also seems to grow more important with every year they age. And all of this is only family; I haven’t even begun to think of exploring new cities, relaxing on beaches or climbing mountains. Three days of relaxation and three more of a tourist-filled holiday atmosphere in an entire year isn’t exactly my idea of a mental recharge.
The two-week PTO schedule is absurd, counterproductive, and disrespectful.
Some of the reasoning behind our paltry “standard” vacation is surely cultural. The United States does not require that businesses give workers any vacation at all. Zero. Via the magic of anchoring, businesses feel almost generous for giving ten whole days when they are required to allot zilch. In an environment where the cultural norm is deigning to give barely enough time for workers to meet even the barest family commitments, antagonism emerges between companies and workers, and the already arduous tasks of work seem bleak and endless for workers trapped with these policies. The companies, too, end up thinking of their people more as resources or hours worked instead of as actual living humans, or even as beings that inevitably produce inconsistent results over time due to varying levels of productivity.
Humans are susceptible to stress, distraction, burnout, and exhaustion. Every person is physically and psychologically different, and every person also has different life circumstances that can lead to more or less stress and its numerous effects. Some of the most obvious effects of these symptoms are a lack of focus, diminished creativity, and a decrease in productive output for workers. We don’t need scientists to tell us these things, as they are plainly obvious to any observer. But if you are inclined toward research, there is plenty.
Happy, fulfilled people are productive and innovative people who will do a better job, often even better than the “most productive” workers who are in the process of burning out. It’s amazing how much benefit a relaxed mind and a fresh perspective can bring to work, especially for knowledge workers who deal and create in ideas. A few measly days smashed onto a holiday weekend at some point in the year will not yield people with the attitude and outlook that companies want. The obviousness of this observation is so stark that the dissonance of companies embracing these policies defies good business sense.
The most important quality of every great manager is empathy. Empathy doesn’t mean crying in the closet alongside a team member who’s recently broken up with their partner, nor does it mean sharing feelings in a touchy-feely forced office seminar. Empathy is borne of respect and the perspective to understand that one’s own life circumstances, advantages, outlook, judgments and emotions are not shared by everyone. Empathy enables a great manager to create space for a team member to live a life with different challenges, make different mistakes, and focus on different priorities.
Empathy is asking “How can I be a better human for these people?” without a full understanding of what it feels like to be them.
One of the least empathic environments a leader could create is one that is completely homogeneous and based entirely off their own personality, life experiences, and individual challenges. The employee who lives across the country from their family will experience life differently from the one who lives two blocks away from theirs, or the other who is the only one left living in theirs. Those who have children will have a profoundly different experience from those who are single and have tens of thousands of dollars in savings. Employees with arthritis, disabilities, or a chronic heart condition will experience life in a dramatically different way from those who do not suffer with the daily burden of living with what they must.
Great leaders understand that it is not their place to judge others’ life circumstances, regardless of how little they understand about why or how those circumstances came to be. The creation of companies and environments that do not create space for employees to be different and fulfilled in unknowable ways is an act of disrespect toward those people. Whether through ignorance or indifference, leaders who perpetuate these environments are hostile not only to the diversity of humanity on whom they rely, but also to the business itself, which is worse both for its moral failing and the diminished output of its workers.
How much paid time off is enough? I can’t answer that definitively for every company, and every company leader should take the time to form the perspective necessary to create an empathic policy.
Many companies now have an open vacation policy, where employees are not only able but encouraged to take the time they need to step back and gain the calm and perspective that only an extended break can bring. The encouragement and empathy built into their cultures are crucial aspects of their uncapped vacation policy, though, fending off otherwise negative social pressure that can lead to “open vacation” policies meaning zero vacation.
Basecamp has a four-day work week during the summer, explicitly set up to allow their employees to take more time for their lives outside of work. This in addition to 3 weeks of paid vacation and a cache of “personal days” to cover all manner of life circumstances.
Other companies are experimenting with minimum vacation policies, which combine the benefits of an uncapped setup with the very explicit expectation that workers take regular time off to live their lives and come back to make the company stronger. There seems to be some wisdom around the idea of one week per quarter being a reasonable balance of vacation to excellent quality work, plus a generous set of holidays and maybe a few more days for family obligations.
Leaders have the challenge of not only learning empathy and establishing the perspective necessary to build great teams, but to then create the space for those people to flourish. I hope to see many more leaders take on this challenge and dispense with our “standard” two-week national disgrace.