Navigating through your sick days, vacation days, and days you just want to take off can be hard. Companies usually don't provide a definition of each and how they're different.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75% of workers had access to paid vacations in 2018. That means there's a pretty good shot that you have the ability to take one too. However, this can be a little difficult to navigate if you aren't sure how to take paid time off or how to ask for it.

Luckily, we've got you covered with all the questions you could have about paid time off. Keep reading for everything you need to know.

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What Is Paid Time Off?

Paid time off or PTO is a company policy in which an employee is paid for days that they don't work. This can be applied to vacation days, sick days, company holidays, or other days when an employee isn't present.

These policies often vary by company. Some companies give a set number of days while others have employees accrue PTO for the hours they work. For example, a policy could guarantee 10 days of PTO your first year, then 15 the next year, then 20 beyond that. Another policy could be that for every 40 hours you work, you accrue 1 hour of PTO. These differ among companies, so it's a good policy to ask about in interviews to find the right benefit for you.

Employers can also specify if employees' PTO resets at the end of the year or if accrued PTO carries over. Some might specify that you need to use your time before the year ends and PTO starts over. Others have it set up for accruing hours into the next year, so employees who don't take advantage of it still retain the benefit of the previous year.

What's the difference between paid time off and vacation?

Paid time off and vacation are often used interchangeably, so it can be difficult to differentiate between the two. Paid time off covers any time away from work where you get paid. Vacation time is a subset of that used specifically for time away with family and friends. Vacation time is a form of PTO, but PTO has other uses as well.

1. Review your company's PTO policy.

Before you make any plans for a vacation or personal day, you'll want to know the details of your policy. This could determine how many days you plan to take off, how far in advance you need to let others know, and other details. You don't want to plan out the vacation of your dreams only to find out that you can only take off half that time. Once you have an understanding of your policy, you can move on to your next point of action.

2. Ask your boss for the time off.

Now that you know the requirements for taking time off, you can formally ask your boss. Include what type of time you'd like to take off, for how long, and what you'll do to prepare. You'll be more likely to get your PTO approved if you discuss the plan for staying on top of your work while you're away. If you're unsure of how to ask, use these strategies for effective team communication.

Including a backup plan is important to make sure nothing gets lost while you're gone. Request this time off well ahead of your planned outage so that your company has time to process and approve the request in their system. You'll also give your team time to prepare for your absence.

3. Book out your calendar to make others aware of your plans.

Once you're approved, you can start to plan to leave. Booking out this time on your calendar is a great way to let your team know you'll be gone. You can specify how long you'll be gone for and set your calendar to not accept meeting bookings. That way you won't have people put time on your calendar for meetings without realizing you'll be gone for them. If others try to book you at that time, you can find an alternate date to talk with them.

4. Make an out-of-office work procedure.

Write down a specific procedure for your team to follow to eliminate potential problems and outline what should happen while you're gone. Include who will be responsible for which sections of your normal work when you're gone and who they'll report to. You should also discuss what to do if any urgent work comes up. Spell out the responses that should be taken for all possible events so that you won't have to frantically work while you're away. Get this plan approved by others on your team and your boss so that everyone is on the same page.

5. Set up your email and Slack for automatic replies.

Your last step before you head out should be setting up automatic email and Slack replies to messages you receive. Almost all email services have vacation settings built-in. Go to your account's settings, then find an out of office responder setting. You can then turn it on and specify your message and how long the message will appear while you're gone.

You can also do this with your Slack account as well. You can set a custom status to show how long you'll be away for and use an emoji to give some context. Set your availability to "away" and you won't be shown online to avoid messages over your break. You can also set your notifications to "Do Not Disturb" so you won't see two weeks' worth of messages from your team.

With this in mind, you can now take advantage of your PTO while still giving work your all. Next up: how to ask your boss to work from home.

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