The last two years have been challenging for many, in both our personal lives and our professional lives. People are working from home and figuring out schooling and childcare while also grappling with Zoom meetings galore — and in some cases, the wall of work-life balance has come tumbling down. 

So while this constant change and disruption brings opportunities, there is also an at-times hard reality: some workers are at risk of burning out. As a result, the importance of speaking up about mental health and taking time to recharge has become an increasingly mainstream conversation.  

This affects all generations. A recent report from Indeed shows that 53% of millennials were already burned out pre-COVID, and they remain the most affected population, with 59% experiencing it today. However, Gen Z is now neck and neck: 58% report burnout, up from 47% who said the same in 2020. Meanwhile 31% of baby boomers and 54% of Gen Xers feel the same way. 

What happens when vacation days run out?

So what to do? In a situation like this, it is important to be compassionate and to let people recharge. Employers can go a long way by being flexible, encouraging people to take time off to take care of themselves. 

But what happens when flexibility isn’t enough or when an employee has already used up their PTO? At times like this, unpaid time off can be a possible option. 

Unpaid time off (also referred to as unpaid leave or a sabbatical) is just what it sounds like — it's taking an extended break from the company without salary. 

Everyone’s situation is different as to why they need to step away. It needn’t just be about burnout. Some of the other reasons a worker might take an unpaid leave of absence could be: 

  • Career break/recharging 
  • Caring for a dependent 
  • Moving
  • Grieving
  • Upgrading qualifications with a course of study

Whether someone is walking away from their paycheck to deal with a major life change or for a chance to take stock of where they are in their career and what they want to do next, what’s critical is to be prepared for that conversation and to respond with empathy. 

Being compassionate can make all the difference to an individual and shows them that the company cares.  

What does unpaid time off mean? 

Some companies require workers to use all of their time off before breaching the subject of taking an unpaid leave of absence. What's important is having the correct framework in place to handle a worker's request. 

Of course, if you’re a manager or the new person on the HR team, it’s important to ask what the company policy on unpaid leave is before making any calls on how to set it up. Things to bear in mind include:

  • Policies need to address how to request time off
  • How much notice needs to be given
  • The number of days entitled
  • How many people can be off at once

The Department of Labor provides guidelines on the core requirements around unpaid leave covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), though your firm may go further than what is federally protected. 

Hidden advantages of offering unpaid time off

While the pandemic may have shone a spotlight on the importance of giving employees means by which to deal with burnout now, an article in the Harvard Business Review details some reasons why unpaid time off can be a powerful tool for businesses at any time. Not only does it allow people to recharge and return with new ideas, they also assist with succession planning and help “stress test” a business’s org chart.

In particular, if a leader steps away for an extended period, then this gives future leaders an opportunity to step up and test out additional responsibilities. If a team member steps away, then their peers have an opportunity to fill the gap and learn new skills. 

Meanwhile, if a team member does step away and everything grinds to a halt, then you know how risky it is to rely on that one person to maintain your productivity. You can take steps to address it by implementing training and making sure the organization always runs smoothly.


When so much changes all of the time, companies need to know how to put their best possible foot forward. Today's business climate is dominated by a never-ending news cycle, but also, this is a time when showing compassion to workers who may need to step away for a while is not an abstract idea. It’s not just the empathetic thing to do — you might learn a few things about your teams in the process.