Unlimited Vacation Time Is Basically A Lie, But So Is All Vacation Time

What really matters is if your boss supports you taking time off.
Doing work at the beach doesn't count.
Doing work at the beach doesn't count.
anyaberkut via Getty Images

It doesn’t matter how your company formally handles vacation time. Your employer could be super on-trend and offer lots of flexibility, or more old-school, providing a set amount of days off that accumulate over time. What’s really important is how your boss and the management above her sets expectations about time off.

I realized this after talking to people who have stumbled upon the holy grail of vacation benefits: unlimited time off, a policy pioneered by that iconic Silicon Valley employer, Netflix. The idea is, workers decide how much time off to take, because they're adults who don't need to be micromanaged.

This sounds too good to be true, of course. And if you search online you’ll find endless articles explaining why unlimited vacation time is terrible.

Too much freedom is, apparently, a prison sentence. Workers, unsure what the rules are, wind up taking less time off. A few people even posit that the “real” reason employers give unlimited time off is so that they never have to pay you out for unused days, as is required by law in some states, including California.

Yet when I started talking to people who get unlimited vacation or have decided to implement it, reactions were mixed. What became clear was that the policy is just a starting point. If employers really want people to take more time off -- something that has been shown to not only benefit workers' health and well-being but also improve productivity -- then they need to make that very clear. (And if they don't, well ... cloaking that in an "unlimited policy" is just terrible and we needn't talk much more about that.)

Sarah Rudder has worked at two different companies that offer unlimited vacation. At one it was a disaster, the 29-year-old web developer told The Huffington Post. In an effort to attract more tech talent, Rudder’s former employer abruptly switched from a set 10-day-a-year policy to a free-for-all. Workers who had built up days off with planned vacations felt frustrated. A sabbatical program was canceled.

The company, which Rudder declined to name, offered little guidance on how to handle your newfound freedom: no rules on how far in advance to notify your manager, or how much to take at once.

“They didn’t offer a recommended amount of days of to take, but the leadership was clear that 'you'd better get your work done' before considering time off,” she said, adding that few people really took advantage of the new policy.

Now Rudder again has unlimited vacation at Asana, a software company in San Francisco started by two former Facebook founders. The company has a system for managing vacation policy: Everyone self-reports their time off on a shared calendar.

Rudder gets quarterly emails detailing how many days she’s taken off, and how many days on average her coworkers are taking. People take around 16 days a year, she said, and the number has crept up since she started nearly two years ago.

“It makes you feel like your managers are giving you permission or inviting you to decide what your vacation will look like," Rudder said.

Engineering this feeling is, in the end, what matters about vacation time. Because, the sad truth is, Americans just aren’t that into taking vacation. It’s a combination of our capitalist paranoia -- we’re only as good as our most recent output and eminently replaceable -- plus our puritanical roots as a nation of striving worker bees.

Indeed, we are the only major advanced economy that doesn’t have some kind of mandated vacation policy, according to data from the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

European countries have made vacation a “right” and not a privilege. Laws there establish a right to at least 20 paid days a year. Some countries offer as many as 30 days. Employers in Australia and New Zealand must offer 20 vacation days per year by law. In Canada and Japan the mandate is 10 paid days off.

In the U.S., paid vacation is a privilege -- mostly conferred on higher-income workers. About 20 percent of Americans do not get paid time off. If you drill down to lower-paying industries, the number is even worse. Fifty-five percent of those in the service sector don’t get paid vacations.

So in the U.S., when it comes to vacation we are completely beholden to the whims of our employers. And whether or not they claim that we are adults capable of making our own decisions or give us a set number of days to take off, companies still need to establish norms around vacation time -- otherwise we’re just not going to take that much time off.

When Beth Monaghan, the CEO and cofounder of InkHouse Media and Marketing, decided to switch her company from a set vacation policy to unlimited time off, she thought employees would be psyched, but "people were skeptical," she told HuffPost. So, she and her management team spent time explaining to staff that they wanted people to take time off. The idea was for people to stop using face time as a proxy for doing good work, to encourage creativity and flexibility.

The company made other changes, too, banning email between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. The 95-person PR firm also does work-from-home Fridays.

"We changed company values," she said. When I asked if the policy was a money saver, since the company would no longer pay out unused days, Monaghan said, "No, absolutely not."

When I asked people on Twitter, “Does your boss encourage and support you taking vacation?” Only 39 percent of respondents said yes. Thirty-two percent said their boss does not support them. The remaining respondents said they feel guilty for taking time off.

Most Americans, even the ones with a set amount of vacation time, don’t take all the days offered to them, Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, told HuffPost. And even if they do, they don’t take very long periods of time off. About 40 percent of workers feel their job is in jeopardy if they take advantage of flexibility, according to a 2016 survey her organization conducted, she said.

According to research Galinsky cited, about 42 percent of supervisors ask workers why they need time off and then consider those reasons before granting the time away. Having to justify your time off makes it less likely you’re going to ask for some in the first place.

What’s more, some workers just feel reluctant to step away from their cubicle, unwilling to foist their work on anyone else. “They don’t want to let other people down,” Galinsky said. Also, we know we’ll just come back from vacation to a big old pile of work. “Work is never-ending.”

Galinsky thinks it’s time for employers to rethink vacation policies or at the very least build a culture where vacation is encouraged. Your company could have vacation photo contests or other things that promote the idea of taking time away. Some employers -- including HuffPost -- offer the use of services that will block all your emails while you’re gone. Managers should set boundaries and expectations for you when you’re away. What’s considered a work emergency? Do you need to stay in touch with your smartphone? Or is it enough to provide a phone number where you can be reached?

Some companies send out emails detailing how many days off you have left in a year, encouraging you to take time away. “Make sure people really are supported in taking vacations," Galinsky said.

The rest is just window dressing.


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