Navigating the Differences Between Vacation, Personal and Sick Days

Paid time off (PTO) is a highly desirable component in competitive benefits packages for jobs, but it can also be confusing and challenging to navigate.

Ideally, companies seek to structure paid time off in ways that maximize workers’ flexibility, promote their health and support work-life balance. Unfortunately, many employers are behind the curve when it comes to selecting and implementing human resources (HR) systems that achieve that ideal.

The result can be clumsy, hard-to-use processes that waste time and frustrate workers and managers alike. Worse, poorly designed systems can lead to workers struggling to get time off when they need it, despite having more than enough time available on paper.

The best way to navigate the labyrinth of paid time off decisions and requests is to understand the three primary types of PTO and the differences between them. Although specific rules about time off usage may vary from company to company, there are some general guidelines workers can use to get themselves started.

Sick Days

As the name suggests, sick days are paid time off intended to allow ill employers to stay home and get well. When properly used, sick days serve several important purposes in the workplace, such as:

  • Preventing employees from being penalized for illness.
  • Allowing ill employees to recover and get back to work more quickly, reducing workflow disruption.
  • Protecting other employees from potentially contagious illnesses, reducing overall productivity losses in a work center.
  • Creating opportunities for employees to take engage in health, such as allowing them to go to their doctors’ and dentists’ appointments, which must generally be scheduled during standard business hours.

Most companies allow employees to take sick days to care for ill children or spouses. Sick days carry an added benefit in that they do not generally require advance notice. Therefore, these days cannot be denied by managers or employers.

This can create the temptation for workers to use their sick days to get paid time off in situations where they believe they might be denied alternative forms of PTO. Doing so, however, can quickly lead to a host of problems. For instance, workers who use their sick days for personal reasons may not have paid sick time when they actually become ill. As such, they risk being denied other types of time off and penalized for their absences.

To combat this, some companies purposefully limit how sick time can be used. Employees caught violating those policies may be subject to disciplinary measures.

Vacation Days

Vacation days are intended to be a perk or fringe benefit. Their purpose is two-fold. First, they sweeten employment terms and attract employees to a company rather than to its competitors. Second, they counter possible employee burn-out by giving workers annual opportunities to rest, recharge and reconnect with friends and loved ones.

Due to the nature and stated purpose of vacation time, it is usually governed more strictly than sick days. Although employers cannot judge what workers do with their vacation time, they can and often do require that vacation days be requested a certain amount of time in advance. Companies may also specify dates or periods of time during which they will not approve any vacation requests due to the needs of the business.

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In most cases, so long as they follow their companies’ policies for requesting and receiving approval in advance, workers can elect to take their vacations when and how they prefer. For example, they might take off of their available time in a single, large chunk, in smaller amounts scattered throughout the year or one day at a time, as desired.

Personal Days

Personal days were created to fill a gap in the traditional paid time off structure. At base, they are a recognition that workers have responsibilities outside of the workplace and that, sometimes, those other responsibilities will require them to miss work.

Personal days allow employees to meet their obligations without sacrificing their sick time or vacation time to do so. Common examples of instances in which workers might choose to take personal days include:

  • Moving
  • Accompanying friends or family to medical appointments or personally meaningful events
  • Attending funerals or court proceedings

Like vacation days, personal days must usually be requested and approved in advance. Companies may place restrictions or regulations on when they may be taken.

Generic Paid Time Off

In an effort to reduce confusion and increase employee satisfaction, some companies and industries have begun adopting systems under which paid time off is not divided out into categories. Instead, employees are given or accrue PTO hours in a single, generic “pool” of time. When and how time may be taken varies by company and is clearly spelled out by human resources (HR) documents.

The primary benefit of these systems is that they largely eliminate confusion and conflict around time-off requests. Workers can use their time to their best advantages. Studies suggest that workers with flexible PTO use more of their available time each year and are more satisfied with how they used it.

Generic PTO systems are not without their challenges, however. Workers may still find that they cannot take time when they want it due to company “blackout” dates or because too many of their coworkers have already requested leave at the same time. Workers who use all of their available time for vacation or personal reasons may find themselves without PTO when they become ill.

What to Do When You Have Questions

Employees who have reviewed the time off available to them but remain uncertain about which type of PTO to request have a series of options. Employees with questions can:

  • Review their employee handbooks, contracts or other company reference documents.
  • Speak to their first-line supervisors or managers.
  • Contact their companies’ human resources departments.

Regardless of how they choose to proceed, workers will benefit from bearing in mind that the earlier they submit questions or requests, the more likely they are to achieve positive resolutions to their situations.

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