The Battle Over PTO

Requests for paid time off reach a four-year high—and companies aren’t always saying yes.

On a typical day in the executive suite, the minor crises roll in one after the next. A competitor announces an unexpected innovation; an executive is leaving unexpectedly; the basement of headquarters is flooded. But these may be hiccups compared to another matter on many managers’ desks: PTO.

Employee requests for paid time off are at a four-year high, matching pre-pandemic levels, according to new data from human-resource platform BambooHR. On average last year, 37% of employees made PTO requests each month—but in January, that number jumped to 56%. And bosses, facing too many of these requests, along with other corporate needs, are approving just half of them, a gap that is growing year over year. 

The issue, of course, is that firms are already trying to juggle hybrid staffers with departments that are woefully short-staffed following layoffs. Even for the most experienced managers, typical workweeks are filled with question marks for scheduling. 

To be sure, companies in most states are not legally obligated to offer PTO, though most reasonably grant it in keeping with their own policies. Among industries, PTO approvals are lowest (between 37% and 45%) in travel, hospitality and food, where feet on the ground are crucial. But leaders say that the duration of requested PTO is trending longer. A vacation request that typically used to be for a week is now for ten days or more. On teams in Europe, managers are seeing pushes for two- to three-week-long vacations, sometimes in combination with further unpaid-leave requests to extend the adventure. “Perhaps they’ve always wanted to travel somewhere, and stay there for two or three months,” says Mirka Kowalczuk, senior vice president for total rewards and organizational strategy EMEA at Korn Ferry, who notes that lengthy working vacations in the European Union can trigger tax implications.

Experts say the uptick in the number and length of PTO requests is reflective of a shift in how employees prioritize both time off and work itself. For their part, managers just want to know what’s happening, and retain some control. “This is employers seeking clarity: ‘Are you on the job or not?’” says David Vied, global sector leader for the medical devices and diagnostics practice at Korn Ferry.

Experienced leaders say that skilled managers can consider using all these PTO requests as growth opportunities for other staffers. For example, rather than treating an extended PTO leave as a staffing challenge, the team can use it as an opportunity for a less experienced colleague to step up into a leadership role, then hand off the reins upon the employee’s return. “This is the job of a manager,” says Alma Derricks, senior client partner at Korn Ferry—productively handling situations that are less than convenient.


 Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Employee Experience capabilities.