Is 'Paid Time-Off' Actually Possible?

Employees are so attached to work you may have to pass actual policies to pry them from their office email.

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By Matt Straz


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Employers are focusing on creating more generous or unlimited paid time-off policies, but in a workplace culture where technology enables and expects employees to always be "on," is paid time off actually possible?

Related: Unlimited Paid-Time Off? Seriously? How to Make It Work.

The Staples Business Advantage Workplace Index study conducted in May 2015, found that about a quarter of the 2,062 employees surveyed said they regularly worked after the standard workday was done. About four out of 10 said they worked on weekends at least once a month.

Interestingly, France has tried to take the initiative on combatting this kind of work: A new law there has been proposed that would give employees the right to ignore emails and other messages outside of work without fear of penalty.

In the United States, lawmakers are looking to reclassify categories of work being done outside of the office in order to mandate that non-exempt employees be compensated for it. But "overtime" pay is only part of the problem.

When employees take paid time off, are they actually being paid for vacation time, or are they paid to keep working while away from the office? Here's a look at why workers struggle with disconnecting and how to help them actually take paid time off:

The impact of de minimis time

No matter where and when employees work, they need to be compensated, unless the time spent working is considered "de minimis." Established by the U.S. Department of Labor, this decades-old standard allows employers to disregard infrequent and trivial amounts of work that cannot practically be recorded for payroll purposes. The standard applies to employees whose status is nonexempt from overtime.

For example, let's say an employee checks an email at home after working hours. The few minutes he takes to read and respond to the email would be considered an insignificant amount of time to document -- employers can't pay an employee for five minutes worth of overtime.

But the actual amount of time that can be considered unworthy of pay was never specified in the standard. That might be why many employers ignore time spent on mobile devices outside of work hours -- no matter how long a period of time employees put in. Doing so has set a dangerous precedent: Employees feel that they are expected to always be available. They need to answer emails at any time, take phone calls while on vacation or pitch in on their days off.

At the same time, paid time off is more important than ever. Employees are so overworked that about half of those surveyed by Staples said they felt that they could not get up for a break at all, and just under half said they ate lunch at their desks. When they do get a break, they said, the constant call of their mobile devices and the expectation that they should always be available make it nearly impossible to relax.

Ignoring extra work under the de minimis rule has formed an always-on working culture, and employees aren't getting the rest they desperately need. That means it's up to employers to make sure workers get the time off they deserve. Here's how to do that:

Reevaluate your policies.

Do internal policies exist at your company that govern the use of technology outside of the office? If not, reevaluate those policies to adapt them to the latest technology.

Outline what is acceptable and unacceptable during an employee's paid time off. For example, address whether employees should respond to email or answer phone calls while away. In addition, establish whom team members in the office should contact when an employee is taking paid time off and what qualifies as an emergency situation, in which case an employee on paid time off should be contacted.

Don't just leave these policies on paper; talk about their importance with employees. After all, 69 percent of those surveyed by Project:Time Off said they'd be more likely to use more vacation time if their employer created policies that openly encouraged them to take the time off they have earned.

Encourage employees to take their time off and remind them that they are not expected to be available while away. Coach them to put their phones down and take the full break they need.

Related: Why Generous Paid Time Off Policies Pay Off for Employers

Get your leaders on board.

Policies are never effective when your management and leadership disregard or fail to enforce them. For example, if an email curfew is implemented, but a manager persists in continually sending evening or weekend emails, expecting feedback, the new policies are sure to be ineffective.

Managers understand the importance of paid time off. In the Project:Time Off survey, 80 percent of managers said that using vacation time is important to maintain team energy levels, and 74 percent said it gives employees better attitudes. However, 53 percent admitted that they set a bad example for using time off for employees. In addition, 46 percent of managers said they themselves stayed connected to the job during time away.

When employees see managers still working during paid time off, they follow suit. Stress to managers the importance of disconnecting from the job while on paid time off -- they need to set the tone for the entire working culture.

Managers need to not only set a better example, but also help make paid time off possible for employees. For instance, in the Project: Time Off survey, 70 percent of workers said that if their boss helped manage workloads during their time off, they'd be more likely to use more of it.

Have managers work with employees to determine who will cover their work while gone. Set up a plan for how the work will be managed. That way, employees will be less tempted to work while away -- just to avoid the mountain of work waiting for them when they return.

Related: Developing an Unlimited Paid Time-Off Policy That Works

How do you help employees separate work and personal life?

Matt Straz

Founder and CEO of Namely

Matt Straz is the founder and CEO of Namely, the HR and payroll platform for the world's most exciting companies.

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