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The Effectiveness of PTO

Vacations are great.

Who doesn’t love a vacation?

The only trouble with a vacation is coming home from one and not feeling as de-stressed and re-charged as you’d hoped. And sadly, for too many American workers, that is a too common experience.

It’s easy to see why this happens. A good vacation-taking culture is not exactly entrenched into our society. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, representing 36 of the world’s wealthiest nations, that doesn’t legally mandate employers give their employees paid time off.1 That means regardless of how relaxing a vacation could potentially be, many workers don’t even have the option to take one.

And even those who do—the 90 percent of full-time workers and 40 percent of part-timers whose employers actually give them paid time off2—often don’t use the vacation they’re allotted. Recent data3 found that workers are leaving over 750 million PTO days on the table every year. It’s no wonder that workplace stress is as much of a problem as it is for employees and the businesses they support. In fact, job stress costs the U.S. economy roughly $300 billion every year in lost productivity, according to the American Institute of Stress.4

90 percent unused vacation days and 75 percent burnout

For the (too) few workers who do give themselves the occasional break and actually get away, not all of them find long-lasting benefits as a result. Several studies have found that the stress-relief that is supposed to be a marker of good vacation travel either doesn’t occur or dissipates quickly once workers return to their desks. Why? Because travel stress5 can quickly negate the advantages travel itself should cultivate. Simply put: not all vacations are good vacations. But they could be. And Dónde knows how to help you ensure that the vacations your employees take absolutely are.

Travel reduces stress and improves health

Job-induced stress is chronic in this country. In fact, 75 percent of employees experience burnout6, meaning the vast majority of people feel overworked, overtired and under-resourced. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report7 found that American and Canadian workers are actually the most stressed of any in the world. While there may be several strategies to try and manage this stress, travel, it turns out, is one of the best ways.

At the most basic level, travel makes us happy and feeling happiness is a powerful antidote to stress. According to the U.S. Travel Association, Americans who use most or all of their vacation days to travel (“mega-travelers”) report markedly higher rates of happiness than the homebodies who use little or none of their time off for travel.8 And it is specifically “travel—not simply taking time off for any purpose”—that yields the biggest dividends when taking PTO. Overall, those mega-travelers are happier with their company, job, personal relationships and—by 22 percentage points—their physical health and well-being than workers who stay home.

Travelers have been found to feel less anxious, better rested and in better moods. Researchers have also shown that foreign travel in particular can boost creativity,9 especially for those who deeply engage with and immerse themselves within the cultures they are visiting.

Of course, travel is also one of the best ways to push one’s own comfort zone and, in so doing, learn to manage and thrive in unfamiliar or challenging circumstances. The result of which is enhanced problem-solving skills, original thinking, empathy and tolerance for yourself and others. Travel teaches us not to judge people so quickly based on their most obvious, outward, characteristics; and travel teaches us how to be comfortable with discomfort.10 All told such experience leads to the kind of personal growth and resilience hard to achieve by other means.

Although these emotional and cognitive benefits of travel are impressive, there are tangible physical health benefits to traveling as well. Studies have found that women who vacation at least twice a year have lower risk of heart attacks than those who only travel every six years. Traveling women also decrease their risk of depression and chronic stress more than those who travel less frequently. Men, too, get a boost from travel. Those who don’t vacation at least once annually have a 20 percent increased risk of death and 30 percent higher risk of heart disease.11

But perhaps the best part of all is that you don’t actually have to go that far to reap the benefits. The key is to spend time in places with which you are unfamiliar; to engage with people who may think differently than you do and whose backgrounds are unique from your own. If you can do that, “you’re succeeding at stretching yourself,” wrote Todd B. Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, in the Harvard Business Review.12

traveler in a remote location

Experiences provide more value than material possessions

With so many advantages accruing from travel, it’s no wonder that 84 percent of employees want to use their time off to do just that.13 One writer said it’s because travel is in our genes, from the time we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, and because travel is inherently hopeful, wistful, imaginative. Travel is adventurous and exciting: we never know quite how it’s going to turn out or what it will look like. “Travel,” he wrote, “is essential the way books and hugs are essential. Food for the soul.”14

But Americans also want to use their precious time off of work because 74 percent15 of them prioritize experiences over things. And travel is nothing if not the ultimate experience. Research suggests they’re onto something important. Scientists have repeatedly found that people gain more happiness from experiential purchases than they do from material ones.16 Key here is that it’s not even just the experience itself that is so compelling. It’s the anticipation of the experience that adds to people’s overall happiness and pleasure as well.17  Researchers have also found that the happiness derived from those experiential purchases is durable and comes before, during and even after the fact.18

“Travel is essential the way books and hugs are essential. Food for the soul.”

Experts believe that may be because we remember experiences for a long time, often our entire lives. The novelty of our possessions, however, has a tendency to wear off.19 According to an article in The Atlantic, another reason may be that unlike with our possessions, people don’t measure the value of an experience as much by comparing it to the experiences of others.20
“It’s the fleetingness of experiential purchases that endears us to them,” the author wrote. “Either they’re not around long enough to become imperfect, or they are imperfect, but our memories and stories of them get sweet with time. Even a bad experience becomes a good story.”

Company culture needs to support PTO

But in order for American workers to have those experiences, their managers at work and the culture at their companies have to actually support using the PTO they’re given. And that’s not always the case. That may be in part because communication between managers and their teams about the value of PTO is often lacking, even though most managers believe that vacations are essential to preventing burnout and improving employee focus.

62 percent employees dissatisfied with pto culture

That disconnect leaves workers not knowing if they are really allowed to take vacations, or worrying that they might be penalized for taking a break by losing out on promotions, or not knowing what procedures to follow to insure they have coverage while they are out of office. If they don’t also see their own managers taking breaks—and talking about them—that only serves to reinforce the belief that vacations are taboo. No wonder 62 percent of employees are dissatisfied with their company’s PTO culture.21

In order to better serve employees, companies need to actively, vocally and practically support the use of PTO. That means leaders need to set healthy work boundaries and take vacations themselves. Managers can, and should, send reminders to employees about the PTO they have remaining and encourage them to use it.22

How to make vacations good vacations

Only with such measures in place, can employees focus on planning vacations that will actually leave them rejuvenated and inspired, which can take some intention and focus. Because, of course, not all vacations are created equally.23 Good travel doesn’t just happen by chance. There are proven ways to maximize the benefits of time off.

Most experts agree it’s critical to:

1. Plan ahead at least one month in advance, if not three24 or more. The underlying bonus to advance planning is the longer period of anticipation that comes with it, which we know, adds to the overall satisfaction people get from travel. Planning ahead also helps to reduce the stress associated with travel, especially last-minute trips, and gives travelers an opportunity to book activities, guides, restaurants and the like, all of which can enhance the overall experience. Using a travel agent25 to manage the details is a good idea.

 

2. Don’t overspend: Travel does not need to be expensive to be rewarding. Going into debt to take a trip can significantly dampen the effect of any perks that a vacation should provide.

 

3. Give employers, colleagues and clients advance notice: Make sure that you have a solid coverage plan in place while you are away and that you’ve set others up well to handle your responsibilities.26 Take time to wrap up big projects and tasks before you head out of office.

 

4. Set an automatic out of office message: It’s important to notify people about your absence. However, the standard OOO reply may not be sufficient. For a new approach try this suggestion from a vacation researcher recently quoted in the New York Times: “I am currently on vacation. Research shows that working during vacations can be detrimental for my health and well-being (De Bloom, Geurts & Kompier, 2012). Therefore, I will check my emails very rarely and mentally detach from my work (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2014).”27

 

5. Unplug: Do. Not. Work. Don’t check your emails, don’t stare at your phone, don’t slink back into Slack for just a few minutes to make sure all is OK. Maybe even purposefully go someplace without Wi-Fi or cell reception28 so you can fully and completely disengage. And then? Be present with your family or travel companions, give your brain a break, allow creativity to emerge, rest.29 You cannot fully recharge if you never turn your battery off.

 

phone and machu pichu

6. Go away: Maybe Madagascar is calling, or Machu Picchu or Tokyo. Maybe you’ve been dying to see Paris in the springtime. Maybe you just want to drive two hours into the countryside for some fresher air or take a camping trip with few sounds and a star-filled sky. Where you go matters less than making sure you escape your daily routine,30 change your scenery and put some distance between yourself and your regular responsibilities.31

Dónde is the difference between good and bad PTO

At Dónde we’ve worked hard to make sure that good travel and good PTO is an attainable reality for every employee. Whether you create a company-matched savings account for your employees—much like a 401K, but for PTO travel—or use Dónde for rewards and recognition or incentive bonuses, our platform enables your company to invest in your employees’ time off and unlock the power of travel in your organization.

When employees log into our app, they can search experiences, travel packages, lodging, flights and transportation around every corner of the globe from Himalayan peaks to local excursions. With the help of our travel agents, users can book their entire trip—air travel, stays, car rentals, cruises—directly in the platform. They’ll have the same range of choices as other major marketplaces, but pay for their selections with Dónde funds. They’ll create custom itineraries and epic adventures in a stress-free, easy-to-manage process.

We handle the advance planning part, the don’t break the bank part, the go away part and so much more. With Dónde all you and your employees are left to do is believe in the importance of travel and then go. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it’s a sure-bet ROI. Your employees get to experience the travel they crave and the refresh they need. You get happier, more productive, more innovative employees and a business that hums.

Is there anything more to say?

Oh, right...bon voyage.

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