- Taking days off from work is important for mental health, productivity, and academic performance.
- If you work part time, communicate with your employer well in advance for the best chance of having your time off request approved.
- Think about paid time off as a valuable part of your overall compensation package—and negotiate for that when you get a job offer.
The American workforce has a burnout problem. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, record numbers of people in the US are quitting their jobs. The cause? A live-to-work culture—long hours, weak work-life balance, and too little time off—that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
But there is a silver lining: More and more employers are starting to recognize the value of giving employees additional time off.
Taking time off: Norms around the world
American work culture is notorious for its relatively low standards for vacation time. The European Union (EU), for example, mandates that all 27 member countries offer full-time employees at least 24 days of paid vacation per year, but many EU countries have laws requiring even more paid time off (PTO). In Sweden, 25 days is the rule; in Spain, it’s 30. The United Arab Emirates offers 30 vacation days (after a year of work); and in the UK, 28 vacation days is the norm. For Canada, 10 days is the minimum, with more accrued the longer you work for a single employer.
But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American full-time worker gets just 10 to 14 days of PTO—and none of that time is federally mandated.
“Not having federally mandated days off contributes to high burnout rates and depression,” says Lauren M., a third-year graduate student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I think it contributes to a lot of job dissatisfaction,” agrees Kristen S., a fifth-year student at Utah State University in Logan.
For part-time work in the US, getting any PTO is “fairly rare,” says Morgan Keasler, a career expert with Point Road Group and certified HR professional in New York City. “There’s no legal requirement that anyone has to provide PTO for hourly or part-time workers, so it can be a little bit of a tricky situation.”
There are exceptions (more on that in a minute), but if you’re taking a contract or hourly job, you can pretty much expect that PTO won’t be part of your compensation.
Why taking time off is important
The big question is, does the workaholic culture pay off? Are American workers really more productive than countries that require more vacation time?
Turns out, research suggests that those who take vacation days are actually more productive than those who don’t. A 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association found that employees whose companies actively encouraged taking vacation reported that they felt more productive and did better-quality work when they got back to their desk.
Taking time off is also good for your health. A study conducted by the World Health Organization and published in 2021 found that long working hours are connected to 745,000 deaths globally, largely due to stress. Additionally, a study by the Harvard Business Review found that when employees returned from a well-planned, stress-free vacation, they had significantly more energy and happiness at work.
“My brother lives and works in Europe,” says Kelly C., a senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado. “They are required to give him at least a month of paid vacation per year. He seems much more relaxed and healthy than the people his age in his field that work in the US.”
Luckily, American work culture is changing. Many companies are starting to offer more time off than the historical minimum, and even part-time roles are starting to include PTO: Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and REI all offer this benefit. In the wake of the “great resignation”—the pandemic-induced wave of people quitting their jobs—that’s likely to become more widespread. “The job market has turned from an employers’ market into a job seekers’ market,” says Alexandra Levit, founder of Inspiration at Work and author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College, which means many national employers are scrambling to offer more enticing benefits to part-time workers.
A note on mental health and self-care
It should be noted that vacation days aren’t the same as sick days—sometimes you simply need a day off for your mental health. That can sometimes be tricky to navigate with employers whether you’re working part time or full time. “Mental health is still very much questioned sometimes. There’s less of an understanding around mental health than there is around physical ailments,” says Keasler. She recommends being up front with your boss to outline how much time you need. “Sit down and say, ‘I am feeling overwhelmed. I would love to have a day off to refocus and to come back and be more productive,’” she says.
How to ask for more time off
Time off is important for your career and your health—so how do you get more of it? “If you are a young professional, it’s absolutely something you should be asking your employer about,” says Levit. She recommends talking to HR about any PTO questions—here are a few tips to get you started.
Talk about unpaid time off
Communicate early and often with your employer about the time you want to take off, says Levit. If your part-time position doesn’t offer PTO as a benefit, you still need to talk about unpaid time off—whether it’s a week you’ll be traveling for a family wedding or your goal of taking half-days on Fridays so that you can work on your side hustle.
It’s also important to set boundaries, she adds. “Setting your own limits on what you’re willing to do on your own time that you’re not being paid for is absolutely critical,” she says. “And it’s critical that you do it at the start of your relationship with an employer.”
Prioritize your breaks
“With internships, especially if they’re short term, it can be tough to take a break because you’re only there for a short period of time,” says Keasler. Aside from a paycheck, you’re ideally there to learn and gain experience, “so you want to really balance what you’re wanting to get out of the internship,” says Keasler. “Do I need a break to reset, or do I want to go on vacation with my friends? If it’s the latter, this might not be the right time.”
Offer an alternative schedule
If you need to take time off but can’t afford to take the hit in your paycheck, “offer to work extra hours the week before and after a vacation,” says Keasler.
Even if you ask for time off early and responsibly, you’re not always going to get it. “The first priority of supervisors is to keep the business running smoothly, and sometimes they can work with you and be flexible, and sometimes they can’t,” Keasler says.
To increase your chances of getting the days off you request, take into account team deadlines or busy periods. For example, if your requested PTO falls on the week a big team presentation is due, coordinate with your team before putting in the request to ensure you can complete your portion of the project before taking off.
Negotiate for more PTO
When PTO is part of the compensation package, negotiating for more days off is fair game. “Come in with some goals. Do your research and know what other companies in your field are offering their employees so that you have some benchmarks,” says Keasler. Career sites like Glassdoor often have information about company vacation policies, and current employees you may know are also a great resource.
Keep PTO on the bargaining table
Your initial hire isn’t the only time you can negotiate for more PTO, says Keasler. Just like asking for a raise, asking for more vacation days is a lever you can pull during scheduled reviews and evaluations.
Ask about accruals
In most full-time roles, vacation days accrue, meaning you earn your vacation days over the course of a year. If you have an event you know you’ll need to take time off for soon after starting your job, bring that up early with the hiring manager. Let them know it’s an existing commitment on your calendar and ask if you can have the vacation time you’ll need up front.
Communicate your needs
Be proactive about taking smaller chunks of time off—a mental health day or standing commitment to pick up the kids from school on Thursdays. “Think about what you need to do in a given day to protect your own mental health and productivity, whether that’s ducking out at lunch to go to the gym or signing off early to see your kid’s baseball game,” says Keasler. “We live in a climate now where some flexibility should be expected, and if you set an expectation up front, it’s going to be easier. Always communicate about what you’re doing.”
Many companies are offering “unlimited” vacation days as a perk to attract talent— but that doesn’t exactly mean you can take six months off. In fact, many employees at companies with unlimited PTO actually take less time off than people at companies with a set number of days. Talk to coworkers if you’re already on the job, or read reviews on Glassdoor or other career sites. “Get a feel for the unwritten rules that govern what you should be asking for,” says Keasler. “If coworkers say, ‘Our busy time is April, no one takes time off then,’ that’s useful information to have.”
Remind your employer of the value you bring
When asking for more PTO, lead the conversation with how you bring value to the company. Discuss how when you are at work, “you are engaged, you are productive, and you are getting things done,” says Keasler. “Then you’re going to have a much stronger case when you ask for some time off.”
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Morgan Keasler, career expert and certified HR professional, Point Road Group, New York, New York.
Alexandra Levit, founder of Inspiration at Work and author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College, New York, New York.
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