Historically, InHerSight’s data has shown that paid time off (PTO) is a top priority among women in the workplace. We all need paid time off from work, but the unfortunate truth is that it’s still not accessible to everyone. In fact, the United States is one of the only 13 countries in the entire world that doesn’t guarantee paid time off for all workers. Oof.
And the harder truth is that we aren’t good at taking time off from work when we do have the opportunity—a staggering 50 percent of US workers don’t use all of their time off. Workaholism and hustle culture mean that nowadays, employees feel pressured to be always “on,” and in the process, are sacrificing a healthy work-life balance and suffering from burnout.
As a solution to these issues, unlimited paid time off policies have grown in popularity over the past few years—since 2015, the number of job postings that advertise unlimited vacation has almost tripled. But despite the upward tick in unlimited policies, controversies remain surrounding its efficacy. Oftentimes, unlimited PTO policies still cause confusion and uneasiness, and as a result, employees underutilize their days off. As a matter of fact, some companies that implement unlimited PTO find that employees take less time off than they did when they had an allotted amount.
Let’s take a minute to understand what unlimited PTO really means, its pros and cons for both employees and employers, and how employers can encourage their workers to take advantage of time off.
Read more: Are You a Workaholic? Here’s How to Know
How unlimited paid time off works
To start at the beginning, paid time off is an umbrella term that covers a variety of reasons for needing time off, including sick days, mental health days, holidays, personal days, and so on. Paid time off can be accrued, which means you earn time off based on how many hours you work, or employers can also offer a certain amount of paid days up front, regardless of how long you’ve been with the company.
Unlimited paid time off, though, is a policy that allows employees the freedom to take as much time as they need or want as long as they get their work done. It doesn’t mean that employees can just skip work and play hooky if they don’t feel like it. Even if it’s unlimited, most companies still have rules in place for requesting PTO, and it's important to handle any type of leave responsibly and professionally.
The downsides of unlimited paid time off
Unlimited paid time off is an attractive offer for job seekers—so, why aren’t workers taking advantage of unlimited time off when they have it? Research suggests that employees feel discouraged to take time off, compete with their peers to take fewer days off, and even skip lunch breaks in order to appear more hard-working.
Some workers are discouraged because they fear that no one can do their job properly or that they would return from vacation to an overwhelming workload. Others feel like taking time off doesn’t sit favorably with their employer and think that they’d be labeled lazy or ungrateful. Whatever the reason, many employees feel guilty for using their paid time off and opt to overwork themselves and neglect their mental and physical health instead.
3 benefits of unlimited paid time off
When you’re able to take time off whenever you need it, you’re better able to relax and relieve stress. Not only is it simply nice to unwind from work and lay on a beach (or your couch) once in a while, it actually has tangible benefits for employees and employers. Here’s why you should never feel guilty for putting yourself first.
1. Unlimited paid time off policies help reduce bias and discrimination.
Because women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community are routinely marginalized at work, it’s important to view paid time off with an intersectional lens. For example, many LGBTQ+ employees are subjected to a traditional, hetero-normative definition of family and are often discriminated against when caring for a sick partner who doesn’t fall into that definition. Unlimited paid time off allows workers to leave for any reason, eliminating the need for biased, excusable reasons to miss work.
2. Unlimited paid time off policies save human resources time and energy.
When time off is unlimited, HR managers don’t have to spend as much time managing how much time off an employee has accrued and don’t have to answer questions about how much time left an employee has to take off during the year. For example, Ask.com says it saves about 52 human resources working hours each year with its unlimited policy.
3. Unlimited paid time off policies empower your workers and build trust.
Unlimited paid time off plans are freeing—they empower employees with flexibility and offer them autonomy over their own schedules. And now, research shows that employees value benefits like flexibility and paid time off just as much as a good salary. Plus, unlimited paid time off inherently builds trust, as workers are entrusted to get their work done in whatever way that works for them, contributing to a better work environment overall.
Read more: The Importance of Building Trust at Work
How employers can encourage employees to use their unlimited paid time off
As discussed, sometimes unlimited PTO policies have the opposite effect of what’s intended on employees. Employees with unlimited time off take less than the standard two weeks because they’re uncomfortable declaring that they need a break. To ensure that your policy is effective, consider the following options to encourage employees to take advantage of their time off and position your company as one of the best places to work.
Lead by example
As the boss, if you never take time off, your employees will feel pressured to follow suit. Set an example for your workers and take regular time off throughout the year to signal that it’s totally acceptable. Besides, leaders need to recharge and take vacations just as much as their employees.
Enforce company-wide breaks
Sometimes it just feels like there’s never a good time to get away from work. Send a message to your employees that they need to take time off and recharge by closing the office for a week. For example, LinkedIn closes its offices during the week of July 4 to allow workers a chance to rest. By enforcing a mandatory break, it can incentivize employees to take more breaks of their own volition.
Re-evaluate your company culture
As a leader, you should over communicate the benefits of taking PTO. Bake it into your core values and company culture, and demonstrate a genuine interest in your employees’ vacations. Encourage them to share vacation photos in Slack and share fun stories at team meetings. Talking openly about taking time off will help reduce the stigma or guilt that’s attached to it.