By Kathy Gurchiek

Looking for ways to encourage employees to unplug while on paid time off? Read on for tactics ranging from asking employees to ‘solemnly swear’ they will not think about work while on vacation to muting employee work communications and rewarding workers for taking time off.

Take an Oath

“We have an internal policy to have employees sign an oath before leaving for vacations that says that they will have fun and not think about work at all. Although [all in fun], it has had a relaxing effect on anxious employees that otherwise felt guilty about taking days off for vacations.”
—Jason Wise, HR associate, chief editor and head publisher at New York City-based technology research outlet EarthWeb.

Address Job Concerns

“Some employees fear losing their job if they disconnect during vacation. The current economic state and expected recession is bringing about concern over job security, and employees fear disconnecting could result in being viewed as unproductive. Address this concern and assure them of their jobs.”
—Bill Ryze, chartered financial consultant and board advisor at Fiona Finance in Tennessee.

Nix Vacation Shaming

“A disturbing trend in the workplace is “vacation shaming,” in which co-workers and managers make people feel bad about taking time off. Send a clear message to your executives and employees that this behavior will not be accepted, and you will have successfully nipped this issue in the bud. Advocate openly in group settings for workers who utilize their vacation days.”

Also, encourage shorter breaks.

“Employees may not know what to do if they take an entire week off, so you may want to suggest that they take a few days off at a time, perhaps by extending their weekends or requesting time off in the midst of the week. A half-day’s break in the midst of the week may do wonders for their energy levels.”
—David Farkas, founder and CEO of The Upper Ranks, a link-building company in New York City. 

Set a Mandated Amount of PTO

“A lot of companies think that introducing unlimited PTO policies is enough to motivate employees to take time off but in reality, it often translates to less time taken. At Remote, we’ve set a minimum 20 days off per year, and try to make sure everyone has something planned at any given time.”
—Nadia Vatalidis, Johannesburg, South Africa-based vice president of people at, a remote organization management platform.

Reward Employees

“Offering rewards for it has helped me solve this problem. For instance, if you take paid time off in Q1 with more than ‘x’ percent of your paid time off in one chunk, you will get one extra day of paid time off.”
—Leslie Gilmour, CEO and founder of digital marketing agency BeFound in Ireland. He also handles HR for the company.

“Some employers who post jobs with Ladders say they plan to offer workers cash for every full week of vacation booked, which could accumulate if employees actually use their time off.”
—Dave Fisch, CEO at jobsite Ladders.

Penalize Employees

“We have a policy in place where if an employee comes into the office on their day off, they’ll lose their whole day’s pay. This is intended to discourage people from coming in when they’re supposed to be on vacation.”

Additionally, “we don’t allow any employees to check e-mail or answer calls while on vacation—it’s just too easy for someone who’s at home relaxing with their family or friends to slip into work mode.”
—Jeremy Luebke, founder of land investment company We Love Land in Dallas.

Share Vacation Stories

“I implement a policy … in which employees are required to show and share with the team what activities they have done during [their time] off. Whether a movie marathon at home, an online yoga class session or walking at the park, the employee should show proof, such as pictures, showing his activities. This way, my employees will be required to spend their off unplugged from work. I also informed them that I wouldn’t take any calls or e-mails from employees who are off from work.”
—Caitlyn Parish, founder and CEO at Cicinia, a wedding apparel retailer based in London.

“[One] thing we do to ensure that our folks don’t work while on vacation is to check in socially. We start off by saying everything is fine then ask for a vacation update. It’s an effective strategy.”
—Thomas Hawkins, CEO, head of HR, Electrician Apprentice HQ in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

Train Managers

“Businesses should train front-line managers on how to coach employees to take time off and prepare for employee absences, including delegating the workload so employees can return to work without feeling like they are behind.”
—Jessica Larson, senior HR specialist with Insperity, an HR solutions provider in Houston.

Distribute the Workload

“When an employee first requests PTO, we make sure their workload will be shared with team members. This reduces the stress level of the person going on vacation and makes sure that nothing falls through the cracks while they’re gone. Finally, we don’t ask what PTO is for; our staff should feel that they can take PTO for any reason or no reason at all. It’s important to make it a ‘no guilt’ request.
—Mark Elkins, head of HR and operations at Karbo Communications, San Francisco.

“Before employees take leave, I set up a meeting between the employee going on leave and the employee(s) that will cover for them while they are gone. This enables the employee going on leave to explain the intricacies of their work and feel comfortable that it is in good hands while they are on vacation.”
—Loredo Rucchin, CEO of printing company Jukebox based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

“Ask employees to create coverage documents that clearly define who will take care of each task in their absence. This resource gives everyone ample time to connect, gather relevant details, and clarify coverage questions before the vacation begins.”
—Thomas Vibe, interior designer and founder of, a natural stone supplier in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Incorporate PTO into Performance Reviews

“I’ve found that including my team’s vacation leave as a goal in the yearly performance assessment works. As a result, I am responsible for completing tasks in a way that enables my team to unwind and find equilibrium. It is beneficial to tie a portion of the performance incentive to vacation time in businesses where work/life balance is a problem.”
—Steve Wilson, founder, New York City-based banking information website Bankdash.

Define Time Off

“Clearly define what is expected of employees, including when they should clock out or log off, how their work hours should be calculated, and what unplugging actually entails. Provide recommendations for who can handle any critical concerns in employees’ absence if they should be expected to stay offline or not respond to e-mails during their time off.”
—Tracy Acker, CEO and recruiter of GetPaydayLoan, a U.K.-based online loan broker website.

Set Expectations

“Let your employees know that you expect them to be available for emergencies and urgent situations, but that otherwise, they should disconnect from work e-mail and social media while on vacation” and make sure all staff members understand this policy.

“Be clear about what does and does not constitute an emergency: If a problem arises at home or with a client that requires immediate attention, let them know how you want them to handle it so that they can respond quickly and effectively. Be sure to define what kind of problems will require their attention and how quickly they need to respond in order for you to consider them an ’emergency.’ ”
—Jeff Colt, founder and CEO of Aquarium Fish City, a media outlet for fish keepers.

Block Office Messages

“The best method to refrain them from doing work [while on PTO] is by muting them from the company’s mail updates and other messages. Neither do they receive any work-related updates, nor can work without having any information.”
—Dr. S.S. Nandal, M.D., director of M.G. Creations rug manufacturer and exporter in Panipat, Haryana, India.

Have a Conversation

“It is important for HR managers to sit down and have this talk with their employees to encourage them to take some time off to reduce burnout. I always help create with my employees a pre-vacation planner and things-to-do list.”
—Sameera Sullivan, CEO and HR director, New York City-based Sameera Sullivan Matchmakers.

Quarterly Reminders

“We talk to each employee every quarter and actively encourage them to book dates and a system that shows each individual how many holiday days they have left.
—Steven MacDonald, managing director of Scotlight Direct, a retail lighting company in the U.K.

Track Time Off

“We have an unlimited vacation policy. Although an amazing benefit at face value, we found—along with many other companies with the same policy—that people were not actually taking time off.

“To combat this, about year ago, we started to track employees’ vacation days; not to keep track if they were taking too much time off, but to track if they were taking enough time off. Based on this data, after the summer we are looking to implement a new ‘minimum vacation’ model where employees are required to take a consecutive number of days off in a row. We found that a lot of people were just taking Fridays off here and there. That is great, but it doesn’t allow you to truly disconnect.”
—Eliza Jackson, vice president of people operations, Boston-based meat delivery subscription service ButcherBox.

“If you see them online, gently remind them that they are supposed to disconnect. … We have employees block time off their calendar for the week of their return to allow ‘catch-up time’ and better manage the workload.”
—Allan Borch, founder, Dotcom Dollar headquartered in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Reflect on Needed Changes

“If there ever comes a point when someone is leaving time on the table at the end of the year, that means I need to examine what needs to change so that everyone can have a healthy work/life balance.”
—Dr. Jae Pak, M.D., of Jae Pak Medical, Los Angeles.