How to Take (and Offer) Mindful PTO

Paid time off (PTO) can make a huge difference in employee mental health. We look at why it’s important and how you can take—and offer it—tactfully.

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The Calm Team

5 min read

Paid Time Off (PTO) has always been an essential element of a healthy workstyle—but as workplace stress levels rise and people adapt to new ways of working, the restorative power of PTO deserves more attention.

For employees, PTO is an opportunity to re-balance a work-life that may have gotten lopsided. Especially if it’s well-spent, PTO can leave one feeling recharged long after they return to work.

And PTO doesn’t just mean time taken for vacation. It includes time taken off for mental health purposes, to rest after a challenging stretch of work, or for simply taking time to do what makes you happy.

How employers approach PTO can make a huge difference for their people. Not just in terms of PTO policy, but also how it’s communicated and received in the company culture. For many companies, there are some major educational gaps to fill: A survey showed that 57% of employees didn’t take time off because they didn’t consider their mental health concerns as a valid reason.

In the wake of the pandemic, there’s the added challenge of some people having to take time off at home when they’ve been working from home. Lines that should be cut and dry are getting blurred – and it’s illustrating a point that can easily slip past us: all PTO isn’t equally restorative.

Why it’s important to take quality PTO

We all want to emerge from PTO feeling rested and restored, but the effectiveness of PTO can vary greatly. One major factor that contributes to this is being able to properly disconnect from work—but 82% of working professionals remain connected to work while on PTO. Having these blurred lines between work and time off can drag the quality of both down, as well as weigh on mental health.

On the flip side, when PTO is well-spent, it can provide a host of health benefits—both mental and physical. Time off has been linked to reduced depression, better sleep habits, and studies show that taking regular vacation reduces risk of heart disease. Famously, a nine-year study showed that more vacation time is linked to reduced mortality, regardless of cause.

For all of the benefits of PTO, there is one blemish: the benefits tend to drop off after returning to work. That said, you can greatly reduce that benefit drop off by taking high-quality, mindful PTO that suits you. Here are some tips to making the most of your time off:

How you can make your PTO as restorative as possible

Take time for mindful moments

A focus on cultivating mindfulness during your PTO is proven to help extend the benefits of vacation time. Even if you recognize its benefits, it’s easy for time spent in mindfulness to be shelved until “one day, when I’m not so busy…” The idea of doing it can become another entry on your To-Do list.

But mindfulness, at its core, isn’t something to do—it’s tuning into what you’re already doing. Why not take a moment right now? Take notice of the fact you’re breathing. Can you feel the temperature of the air entering and exiting your nostrils? The gentle rising and falling of your chest?

Making time for mindfulness doesn’t mean that all of your time off has to be spent in mindful meditation—in fact, spending time in mindfulness is something that often increases your enjoyment of time spent elsewhere.

Communicate with your manager and team about a plan for your time off

Taking time to let your colleagues know you’ll be out of office can help keep things running smoothly in your absence—it will also minimize the chances that your team will need to get a hold of you on your time off. Remember, it helps to totally disconnect!

Notice if you’re feeling any vacation pressure

It’s a real thing! Having a limited window of time off can ironically be a cause of stress if you feel a pressure to enjoy it, with a ticking “Time Left Until Work” clock looming in your mind. Moments spent in mindfulness can help you focus on the present without your PTO constantly feeling time-limited.

Reflect on what you need to feel recharged

Spend your time in a way that makes you feel good. That might mean doing nothing on your couch, spending time alone, seeing family and friends, getting out of town altogether for a change of scenery—whatever you feel you need. What’s most important is that your time away is intentional, nurturing, and purposeful.

Spend some screenless time outdoors

Even if your time off features a whole lot of Netflix, try and give your body an intentional reprieve from screen time. Getting outdoors can help deepen the distinction between your PTO and the feeling of being cooped up in a work environment. Plus, studies show that spending time in nature is connected to increased happiness.

Set yourself up for habits that will make you happier

That could mean setting the groundwork for a healthy sleep schedule, a meal plan, or an exercise routine—any habit that will pay dividends now and when you return to work. New habits are easiest to build when you find yourself outside of your usual routine, so take advantage!

How can HR pros and managers help make PTO all the better?

Make it a point to prepare for an employee’s departure

Work with them and ensure you have access to any relevant files or info you may need while they’re out. Also, book time for them to connect with whoever may be taking over their workload—handing over a project is usually more than just a matter of files.

Try to wind down the person’s schedule as they approach PTO

It can make a massive positive difference for someone if they’re eased into vacation time after a few days of low-intensity work or tying up loose ends. If they’re launched into PTO while freshly burnt out or scrambling mid-project, it can take some time to ease into the recuperative benefits of time off.

Examine the company culture surrounding PTO

Take the time to revisit your organization’s whole PTO policy and see where it aligns (or doesn’t) with your goals of supporting employee well-being. Are there any red flags or clear opportunities for change? Maybe you have an unlimited PTO policy, but no one is taking it. Do you only offer one week of paid PTO, and everyone has already used it? Does your policy allow for additional types of paid time off like mental health days, allowances for parental leave, or grieving?

Encourage PTO from the very top of your company

More than half of workers don’t take their full amount of PTO. If your leadership and upper management are shouting the benefits of PTO from the rooftops, you may find your team is more inclined to take the time off that’s available to them.

Consider scheduling time for more breaks during the workweek

Especially for employees that don’t have much allotted PTO, breaking up the workday can help people become less overwhelmed, allow for more mindfulness at work, and help them feel less wrung out when they do get time off.

PTO matters—and it deserves to be valued as more than just a break from work. If you have time off coming up, consider the different ways that you can harness it and make it as restorative as possible for you. And if you’re a manager or an HR pro, you can (and should!) play a role in helping PTO be as valuable as possible for your people.

For more on how to return to work at your best, check out our post on The Art of Rekindling Your Work Motivation.

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