May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and there’s no better time to encourage employees to use their PTO. Employees have always dealt with different mental health stressors – and to different degrees. But with employee stress at an all-time high, why aren’t workers taking enough time off?  

Mental health days are vital for your employees’ well-being; without time to unplug and recharge, employee performance may decrease and will likely lead to higher turnover. If the “Great Resignation” taught us anything, people are no longer afraid to walk away from workplaces that cause them high stress. Thankfully, taking mental health days has become more normalized and less taboo. 

Failure to use PTO negatively impacts employee well-being  

Great work comes with sacrifice. Think of your successful employees who meet deadlines, create more efficient ways to complete tasks, and kill it in their areas of expertise. They are more than likely, on some level, suffering for all that success. 

That’s why companies offer benefits like paid time off (PTO) as an essential perk. While some countries like the United Kingdom require their employees to take 28 days of PTO, other countries (such as the U.S.) leave it up to employees to manage PTO usage. But is that a smart move? 

46% of workers in North America take less paid time off than offered. Additionally, 40% of the American workforce reported their workload prevents them from taking vacation time. Statistics like these aren’t good for business. Employees who work too hard without enough time to recharge burn out. 

Research from two UK-based universities show that employees who don’t take enough PTO experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. These lead to decreased productivity and job satisfaction and an increase in unplanned absences. Workers with fair or poor mental health only take an estimated 12 days of unplanned absences in a year. So, the reality is that employees can only take so much stress – it will catch up with them if they don’t take the necessary precautions to recharge and rest, whether they realize it or not. And it’ll result in them taking time off unexpectedly, which isn’t good for them or your business. So isn’t it better to encourage teams to take their PTO? 

Employees who don’t take mental health days are also more likely to experience health problems — such as heart disease, obesity, and depression — as psychological and physical health are connected. 

Four reasons employees aren’t taking enough time off  

Despite the availability of PTO in employee benefit plans, many employees don’t take the mental health days they need. Heres why that’s the case. 

1. Employees feel guilty

53% of American workers feel guilty for taking time off because co-workers would inherit their workloads. This is why many who take PTO still make themselves accessible during that time — which defeats the purpose of being offline to recharge. Reiterate to your employees that they shouldn’t feel guilty for taking time off to destress and must stay offline while on PTO. It is also up to leadership to make sure workloads get evenly divided. When time off is planned, management can adequately prepare for when team members are out.

2. Employees fear they’ll lose their jobs.

Workers will forego mental health days and vacations altogether due to the fear of being fired. In 49 out of 50 U.S. states, individuals are at-will employees, meaning they are without a signed collective bargaining agreement and can be fired for any reason — including taking too much time off. It’s important that your employees know that your company supports taking full advantage of PTO policies and that being fired for having time off work is out of the question.  

3. Employees worry they’ll be judged

27% of workers worry their manager and peers will perceive them as lazy if they take time off. This is especially the case for mental health days. There is sadly still a stigma for employees who take mental health days, which is why many make up another reason for taking that time off. Nearly half of the 63% of employees who take time off for mental health lie about why they do so. Your employees should not have to lie about taking days off work. Talk more openly about these within your organization and why you support them.

4. Working parents fear they’ll be stigmatized

While working parents are protected from discrimination under laws – such as the Family and Medical Leave Act – some are still reluctant to take the time off due to social stigma and interpersonal consequences. Most don’t want resentment from their child-free co-workers, appearing as though they have more flexibility. Every employee that earns time away from work deserves the opportunity to take it, whether they are a parent or not. As a company, ensure that all employees know they are encouraged to take days off to recharge, regardless of their living situation. Doing so can help alleviate anxiety for working parents.

How can employers encourage PTO for mental health?  

When many people think of PTO, they strictly think about vacations. Taking days off for mental health is still in the process of being normalized. And it’s up to companies to tell workers leveraging PTO for mental health days is welcomed. 

Why is this important?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), depression and mental health disorders rank in the top three most expensive and common issues among employees, costing employers more than $100 billion in lost productivity annually. 

Employees who take mental health days are not only benefiting themselves but also the employer they work for. That said, encouraging teams to take days off for mental health reasons can be tricky due to the stigma. So, how can companies resourcefully support employees who use PTO for mental health? 

Below are three creative ideas to keep in mind: 

1. Create a ‘no questions asked’ policy for taking PTO

Do not require employees to tell you why they need the days off. This takes the stigma out of the equation when employees need to take a mental health day. Have this policy in writing somewhere your employees can access easily. Mental health PTO needs are deeply personal, and this will help prevent employees from feeling they need to justify it when they don’t

2. Remind employees of the benefits of PTO, including mental health

Whether through your employee newsletters, team webinars, or company town halls — reiterate to employees that one of the benefits of PTO is how it can improve their mental health. Discuss the many upsides to employees taking mental health days off. This awareness and open communication will help employees feel more comfortable taking them when needed.  

3. Redefine PTO as more than taking vacations

Discuss PTO in terms of more than just vacations, such as focused family time and self-care. With hybrid and flexible work more common, workers might need an additional nudge. Just because they aren’t always working in an office doesn’t mean they still can’t burn out. Make sure your workforce knows you understand where they work from doesn’t change their workload.

PTO benefits both employees and companies 

PTO is directly linked to mental health, and that’s not theoretical. According to Club Mental, data show that for every additional 10 days off, depression decreases by 29%. 

Additionally, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that people are more creative two weeks after their vacation than before taking time off. And creativity is a clear benefit for an employer.  

The problem is, we’ve already built a culture where burnout is worn as a medal of honor, and it’s deemed admirable to work any chance you can get. To push past these mental roadblocks, companies must create a way for employees to see how urgent their own happiness is.  

Let’s make it a goal not to need Mental Health Awareness Month to remind us that mental health is a priority. Taking PTO for mental health is always good for an employee’s mind and the company’s bottom line.     


Avatar photo


Amanda is a Florida-based writer with 9 years of experience in digital content creation for businesses. Prior to joining Eptura, she worked in thought leadership roles with groups including management consultancy Huron Consulting and industry research and insights firm Gartner. In her current role, she covers the latest worktech and workplace experience trends. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism.