Forget Your Bucket List — Take PTO

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The case for investing in experiences, not delaying your vacation

Lately, paid time off (PTO) has become a hot topic in the American workplace. The amount of PTO offered by companies rivals an employee’s salary. And more employers are trying to improve the work-life balance of their employees by increasing the number of vacation hours available. Some companies have even started offering unlimited PTO, claiming employees can take a vacation whenever they need to recharge or check out.

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Despite these seemingly positive trends, employees still aren’t taking vacations. We are not taking breaks. “Work-life balance” seems to be more “I’ll check my work emails from home only five times today.”

A recent TSheets survey found only 35 percent of employees took all of their PTO last year, but on average, people left five days of PTO unused. We are given opportunities to go out and explore, but we’re not doing it. Where’s the disconnect?

 

Work expectations outweigh paid time off

Reasons for not taking a vacation can vary, with some employees skipping vacation due to their workload. However, the most surprising factor we found (and potentially the most alarming) was age. The TSheets PTO survey found 61 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds left at least a day of PTO unused last year, compared to the 39 percent of employees aged 45 and older who did the same.

Keep in mind, this is not related to the number of vacation hours granted to employees based on their tenure. The average U.S. employee receives 11 vacation days a year, meaning 39 percent of those younger workers are potentially only taking 10 days off — maybe even less — to travel.

It’s possible these younger workers are leaving PTO on the table because they are trying to establish themselves at their jobs and prove they are loyal workers. However, no matter what age, most employees cited work-related reasons for not taking time off.

 

PTO: A savings account with 0 percent interest

As a culture, we have a “savings account” mentality embedded in our DNA. We love big numbers. For most of us, we have been coached from a very young age to always “prepare for the future,” and this seems to be bleeding into how we treat our limited vacation hours.

As one TSheets employee mentioned, “Seeing a balance of zero [available vacation hours] would drive me crazy.” I can sympathize. It’s no secret we like to save for that next big trip or item. However, I think this mindset prevents us from achieving the smaller goals that will ultimately lead us to greater happiness down the road.

We have a tendency to treat everything like a bucket list: travel, big-ticket purchases, etc. We save and save and save in order to achieve that one huge thing we’ve always dreamed of. Once we accomplish it, we ride the high for a couple of days, weeks, or months before we’re back to the daily grind, reliving that experience in our dreams.

The bucket list has almost become a unit of measurement for quantifying life experiences, encouraging people to set unattainable goals then wait for the perfect moment to actually make them happen.

“Americans are so obsessed with running a 100-mile marathon in the Outback … or flying a hot-air balloon over Fiji that all the fun has gone out of having a bucket list in the first place,” summarizes “Wall Street Journal” contributor Joe Queenan. And if the TSheets PTO data shows us anything, it’s that our “savings account mentality” affects how we plan for our bucket list adventures.

Our survey found 40 percent of respondents saved their vacation hours to carry them over into the next year, instead of using them for the current year. This strategy is only helpful if you have an opportunity the following year to use these hours.

With this in mind, Queenan provides some food for thought:

“If you are approaching the final curtain and still have dozens of things on your bucket list, it raises a question: What were you doing all that time?”

 

Don’t wait to invest in experiences

For some employees, saving all their PTO for a big, yearly trip makes sense and helps them accomplish certain life goals. For others, taking a day or two off here and there is just as fulfilling. No matter how you use your PTO, it’s important to do just that: use it.

For those who don’t travel often and don’t know how to begin, my advice is to start with small trips and work your way up to once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Visit surrounding areas, then states, then countries. Before you know it, you’ll have achieved travel experiences you never thought possible. By taking small, frequent, realistic trips, you will give yourself the opportunity to pause and appreciate how much you have accomplished.

“If you’re climbing Mount Everest, it’s important to take a moment, pause, look backward, and see where you’ve been and how far you’ve come. If you only looked upward while climbing a mountain, you’d miss a well-deserved view of how high you’ve climbed,” says TSheets co-founder, Matt Rissell.

I believe these smaller, more frequent trips will ultimately bring more happiness than one huge adrenaline-filled adventure. If wrestling a shark while skydiving over Cape Town, South Africa, will make your life complete, more power to you. That’s not quite my cup of tea, so I’ll just wait to watch the inevitable clip on YouTube.

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