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Summer 2020 will certainly look different than last summer and as organizations are easing into a new normal, many are strongly encouraging their employees to find ways to take time off even if they opt not to fly or stay in hotels.

Taking mental health breaks to avoid burnout and maintain a work/life balance are among the reasons companies cite for why it is still important to take time off, even if it’s not a full-blown vacation.

“One of the most common reactions that employees have had to working remotely is that they have been working more hours, feel more isolated, and in turn, are at risk of burnout,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice. In fact, 20% of companies have actually increased the amount of PTO they are offering their employees with the goal of getting them to take more vacation, Kropp said.

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Companies are also trying to offer employees more flexibility, he said. Gartner research found that 43% of companies are offering their employees flex days and 15% are offering four-to-10-hour days, according to Kropp. “All of these are designed to give more opportunities for employees to take breaks over the summer,” he said.

There is also a financial reason companies are encouraging their employees to take paid time off. For many companies, the amount of outstanding PTO creates a financial liability that impacts their ability to raise money in financial markets, Kropp explained. “By carrying ‘too much’ PTO on their books, they limit their financial flexibility.”

But some studies show that because of the pandemic, employees are not planning to take time off. According to recent data from Robert Half 28% of US office workers anticipate taking fewer days off in the summer months compared to last year, because of COVID-19, while 16% are taking more time off.

Other findings:
· 37% will save their vacation time for later in the year, hopefully to travel.
· 14% won’t be logging off because they have too much work to do.
· 22% would like to take a vacation but are tightening their belts due to the pandemic.
· 20% will take days off for self-care and mental health.

Other studies show that there is a reluctance to travel during the pandemic. A FinanceBuzz survey of 1,500 US adults ages 18 or older, found that 56% have already canceled their summer travel plans and 19% have changed plans due to COVID-19.

A quarter of Americans (25%) are putting off making any summer travel plans due to the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, the study found. For those who do travel, 27% said they’ll take a road trip instead of flying, while 19% will travel domestically instead of internationally, and 15% will only book refundable options.

And new data from Kickstand, a communications and research firm, also found consumers remain cautious about air travel, with 45% of travelers saying they’ll use commercial airlines less than they did pre-COVID-19. Another 30% said they plan to never hop on a plane again, according to the report.

To get to vacation spots, 39% of travelers said they’re more likely to take drivable weekend getaways and 43% of travelers said they’re planning long road trips this summer to avoid flying.

Travelers remain leery of hotels, choosing short-term rentals or RVs as their domiciles on the road, the study found.

HR staff say flexibility is key

The eDiscovery software provider Zapproved is offering greater flexibility in work schedules and allowing autonomy in scheduling, said Susy Dunn, chief people officer and chief of staff. “We believe that by focusing on results versus managing to a traditional work-hour paradigm we can ease some of the tension on already overstressed employees.”

Managers are also being empowered with the option to give employees long weekends in recognition of their hard work, Dunn said, and the company is extending the 4th of July holiday weekend “so everyone shuts down together. The hope is that by encouraging the breaks we will destigmatize unplugging and create a culture that values self-care and accepts the power of hitting pause to rest and recharge.”

E-commerce firm etailz has adopted an unlimited/flexible PTO policy that allows employees to take the time off they need, said Lisa Wideman, senior director of human resources.

“However, given the circumstances of the pandemic, we have noticed some employees canceling their pre-planned vacation requests,” Wideman said “To mitigate more cancellations and less time-off, we have sent out communications encouraging the use of vacation time and provided our employees tips and ideas for taking a vacation during a pandemic.”

This messaging is also being reiterated during their all-company meetings from etailz’s CEO, she said. Because there aren’t many places for people to go, Wideman says many of their employees have pivoted their plans to instead go camping, while others are taking road trips to see friends or family members.

Still, she noted that “it’s hard for employees to disconnect, given the temptation is always there. Employers must encourage their workforce to intentionally unplug, through having the appropriate coverage while they are away.”

Mark Robinson, co-founder of the professional services automation software provider Kimble Applications, said the issue of some people not wanting to take vacations existed before the pandemic.

“It’s important to realize that pulling together an initiative and formulating tactics to encourage vacation, avoid burnout, and create employee satisfaction, is something that should be a strategic aim, and not just now because of COVID-19,” Robinson said.

Encouraging employees to plan days off—maybe by splitting them over a few weeks rather than taking the usual one to two weeks off—is a good idea, added Sarah Edwards, managing director for international at Kimble Applications.

Companies also need to put a system in place that doesn’t allow every employee to take time off at the exact same time to keep operations moving forward, said Suzanne Pope, chief operating officer of Whiterock Locators, an online apartment location service in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Yet, while keeping business afloat is a priority, it needs to be balanced with encouraging employees to take time off to avoid burnout, she said.

“I’d like to think that most leaders are prepared for a wave of summer burnout to come crashing down on their employees,” Pope said. “Having said that, if companies don’t offer some sort of staycation incentive, employees will feel inevitably burned out, which will detract from the quality of work. It’s understandable, especially for those who have been working from home these last few months, as that has likely been particularly draining.”

So it’s important to encourage people to take a vacation before the burnout sets in, she stressed. “All we can do is be transparent with communicating our vacation policy while being sympathetic to how difficult this has been for everybody.”