Why Vacation Time Matters More during the Pandemic and How to Encourage Your Staff to Take Some

Vacation time is something most people look forward to — and your water lab employees are no exception. But this year, paid time off (PTO) has taken on unprecedented importance and unusual complexity.

Between new workplace safety measures and client communication challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a slew of stressors you and your employees have never encountered before. In this ever-changing and uncertain climate, it's crucial that your team uses their PTO to get some much-needed R&R. That said, getting them to use their vacation time may be a challenge in and of itself.

As much as employees may need time off to care for a loved one or themselves, many are reluctant to take advantage of PTO right now. Some fear that taking a vacation will jeopardize their job status, especially as the flow of business rises and falls at your lab. Others may feel like their vacation options are limited, given the travel restrictions around the world, and that it's better to just keep working.

As a lab manager, it's your job to assure your team that scheduling PTO is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

Communicate Federal PTO Changes

If you haven't already, host a team meeting to share federal law changes that affect your staff's PTO. The enactment of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in March gave both businesses and employees greater latitude and predictability in how they manage PTO throughout the pandemic. The law covers two categories of leave:

  • Paid sick leave for up to 10 days.
  • Partially paid expanded family and medical leave for up to 10 weeks.

The law also defines a number of pandemic-specific eligibility criteria, ranging from employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to needing to care for a child who's been displaced from school or day care. Ensure your workers understand the ins and outs of this law so they're able to take full advantage of it.

Lead by Example

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), one of the best ways to encourage employees to use their PTO is by taking a vacation yourself. Announcing your plans to unplug and making your team aware of your vacation time can help establish a healthier culture surrounding PTO use.

"(Time off) is the most emotional benefit we have. It is the most valued. People don't have a lot of control right now, and they are trying to control what they can," says Jackie Reinberg of Willis Towers Watson, a risk management and advisory firm, in the SHRM article. Reinberg recommends starting a dialogue with your workers to remind them of your PTO policy and assure them that the time's there for the taking. Reiterate that they've earned it, after all.

The SHRM also suggests shutting down operations for a week in order to force people to take a break. While it's unlikely that you could keep your water lab closed that long, you may be able to shut it down for a day when your testing schedule is light.

Consider Flexible PTO Policies

Across all industries, organizations are adjusting to a range of new policies for conducting business considering COVID-19. Anticipating that the pandemic will continue or return in the future, some are considering or planning formal changes to their PTO policies.

According to the SHRM article, some companies are planning to increase their annual carryover limits so employees don't lose as many of their hard-earned days off. This approach could work well for your water lab if vacation periods are appropriately staggered. Other companies are planning to require workers to take PTO in order to reduce the accumulation of too many days.

As with any policy change at your lab, it's important to move cautiously and transparently when tweaking your PTO benefits so employees aren't taken by surprise. Along the way, you'll want to incorporate any changes to the FFCRA and federal and state employment laws as well as formally update your lab's employee handbook.

At a time when everything feels unstable, PTO policies go a long way toward reassuring your workers that you care about them and want them to take care of themselves. Set PTO rules that enable you to have sufficient staff on hand and grant employees enough time to care for family members, loved ones, and their own physical and mental health.

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Jeff Rowe
Writer and Editor

For the past 25 years, Jeff Rowe has worked as a writer and an editor for the nonfiction and professional markets, including researching, writing, and editing feature articles, blog posts, speeches, project reports, and magazine essays. He has published numerous articles and essays on developments in health care and health information technology, the home medical equipment market, natural resource and environmental issues, and food topics. He has also been editor and community manager for numerous industry-targeted websites, as well as author of a developing series of novels set in medieval Spain.