New data reveals that the vast majority of employees say the amount of PTO offered is important in considering a new job or position, but lower-paid employees are more likely to use PTO for medical emergencies, family or personal obligations instead of actually taking a vacation.

According a study conducted by payroll, benefits and human resources company TriNet, 89% of survey participants felt PTO was important to job satisfaction and influenced their choice of employer. However, the average salary of respondents who said they take PTO for pleasure was nearly $76,000. And those people who reserve PTO for personal or family crises earned an annual salary of approximately $54,000, very close to the U.S. annual average salary of just under $53,000.

Jacqueline Breslin, director, Human Capital Services at TriNet, offers several possible explanations for these findings.

“These employees may be at the stage in their life where their focus is less on pleasure and vacations and more on childcare or eldercare,” she says. “By later in their career they can often take a more balanced approach and recognize the value of actually taking a vacation.”

While less disposable income for vacations may be a factor influencing how lower paid employees use PTO days, she notes that taking time off for a staycation can be inexpensive and just as relaxing as a costly trip. “The amount of PTO available to employees also typically increases based on tenure, so someone who has accrued fewer PTO days may feel they need to reserve them for a family emergency instead of using them up on other things,” she says.

This is consistent with findings of a World at Work study, which reveals the average number of PTO days allocated annually based on employee’s tenure ranges from 16 days (less than one year of service) to 22 days (5-6 years of service) to 25 days (11-15 years of service).

The TriNet survey also shows that the older the worker, the more time off they expect. Baby boomers were twice as likely (26%) to say they need four weeks or more off work than millennials (13%). The largest share of respondents in each age group — including baby boomers (46%), generation X and millennials — cited 2-3 weeks of time off as their ideal amount of PTO.

Breslin thinks that millennials may have lower expectations around the amount of PTO they need because lots of other workplace perks are higher priorities. “For example, continuing education, career development or working for a socially responsible employer may currently be of greater concerns for many millennials,” she says.

And even though U.S. workers view generous PTO packages as very important when they are job hunting, they still let vacation days go to waste. More than half of employees responding to another study by human resources, payroll and benefits company Namely said they intend to take 15 or in some cases, 20 days of annual leave but the average American took only 11 vacation days in 2015 (out of an average of 15 days offered).

“What this tells us is that despite the best intentions to take large chunks of time away from work and unplug from technology, employees are feeling confined and are using vacation time differently than previous generations,” said Matt Straz, founder and CEO of Namely.

Thirty percent of TriNet respondents reported that workload prevents them from taking time off entirely and more than half of survey respondents said they worked at least once a day when they were on PTO. Other barriers preventing employees from taking time off work are stress at the thought of missing time at work and a negative perception at work toward taking time off.

In order to encourage employees to take vacations, Breslin notes that it’s key that employees see the C-suite and senior managers leading by example.

“PTO is there for employees to get away from their jobs so the leadership team should absolutely be emulating that model,” she says. “It’s important that a culture be established that makes it OK for staff to take time and that there is a buddy system built in so co-workers help cover for them in their absence.”

How can companies determine the appropriate number of PTO or vacation days to offer employees?

Breslin has several suggestions. “Benchmark your PTO program with other companies in your business or geography. Ask current employees on employee satisfaction surveys how they feel about your PTO program,” she says. “Feedback from job applicants and new hires is also valuable.”

She also thinks PTO programs should not be static. “Every two years or so, you should be looking at whether or not your PTO program is still competitive in the marketplace.”

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