Managing Post-COVID Vacation Requests

As the COVID-19 pandemic fades in the US and more people feel ready to be out and about, many employers are facing a surge in vacation requests. Finding the right balance for your employees and your operations may require some adjustments to time-off policies and some timely communication. 

During the height of the pandemic, paid time off (PTO) policies – no matter how well-designed they seemed -- were stress-tested like never before. Mercer’s 2021 Absence and Disability Management Survey, with responses from more than 400 US employers of all sizes, provides insights into what actions employers took this past year. In general, we saw them opting for more flexible approaches in how PTO is made available. The percentage of employers offering “PTO plans” that combine vacation and paid sick leave into a single bank of time rose to 68% for salaried employees (up from 61% in our 2018 survey) and to 68% (up from 64%) for hourly employees. In addition, the percentage of employers offering unlimited or untracked PTO -- arguably the gold standard in flexibility -- to at least some of their employees rose from 14% in 2018 to 20% in 2021.

A balanced approach to managing PTO enables employees to get time away from work while ensuring the business can still manage client and operational demands. Transparent and proactive communication about the organization’s PTO policy and the value it brings the organization to have rested and refreshed employees is critical for leadership, managers and team members. It can also help ensure employee contracts are being honored.

If you don’t know where to begin, find out if there are many people in your organization who have not taken time away. If so, encourage them to take a portion of time off, even if they don’t have travel plans. A mental break from work is vital, particularly after the last year and half. In our 2018 survey, 55% of respondents said most employees used all of their vacation days; that fell to just 45% in our 2021 survey. That number is trending up again, as it should, but employers may find that vacation requests exceed historical levels due to pent up demand. To manage an abundance of vacation requests, some organizations may opt for a bidding system during peak holiday season. This can be as simple as setting up a calendar and allowing each team member to select time away a few days or a week at a time – whether by seniority, a lottery or even through a discussion of why someone needs off – and pencil these days in for the entire year.

Certainly, employers want to balance who takes off when in order to keep operations running during peak vacation times and to ensure that the resources to do a job well are in place throughout the year. But PTO is a critical element in the employee value proposition and total rewards package, and ensuring employees use their allotted time is not only good for them, it’s good for the business.

Rich Fuerstenberg
by Rich Fuerstenberg

Senior Partner, Health, Mercer

Deena Harvanek
by Deena Harvanek

Partner | US Talent Communications Solutions Leader

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