Unlimited Vacation – Blessing or Curse?

July 29th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Employers' new policies have some workers scratching their heads.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

A company whose list of perks includes “unlimited vacation days” sounds like a dream. But it takes a certain kind of company to be able to make it work.

And as an employee, it takes some self-awareness to know how – or if – you’d avail yourself of such a liberal policy. There are a lot of us that cut our teeth in industries requiring heavy “face time” (newsrooms, investment banks... I did my time in both), which fostered a judgmental attitude toward vacation takers. Lolling around on a beach when you could be working? Slob.

But it appears that my attitude toward face time might be more than a little outdated. According to a recent story on the topic in The Wall Street Journal, a 2011 survey of 600 employers by the Society for Human Resource Management – an HR professional group in Alexandria, VA – says about 2 percent of employers are now offering a “results-only work environment,” where workers are given control over time off and where and when they work. But, the story reports, “Americans have trouble taking time off even when they are assigned a specific number of days. Only 38 percent of US employees use all their allotted vacation time.”

So called “face time” concerns seem amplified during these times of layoffs, according to John de Graaf, executive director of Take Back Your Time, Seattle, a nonprofit that researches the effects of overwork. He told the WSJ that many people think, “I don’t want to be the next one laid off when the company downsizes again.”

In fact, an NPR story last year reported that the move to unlimited vacation may be seen by some employers as a perk they can provide even in recessionary times. The worry, of course, is that in a culture of workaholics, even with unlimited vacation – with no specified time to unplug and people checking their smartphones from, say, the Himalayas – employees might never actually feel like they got a vacation in the first place.

There are ways to enforce vacation, however. According to the WSJ article, Apolinaras Sinkevicius, director of operations at Pixability, a producer of business videos in Cambridge, Mass., argues that long hours without breaks can lead to a higher error rate and lower-quality products. He started offering anyone who takes off 10 consecutive workdays an additional two weeks’ paid time off to use as they please.

Meanwhile, according to WSJ, at least one company has found a creative way of ensuring employees take some time off. The Alexandria, VA, multimedia financial-services company Motley Fool, which has had an open-ended vacation for 18 years, also has a monthly ritual that requires everyone to be ready to go on short notice for two consecutive weeks of paid vacation. The catch: They have to be prepared to report on their time off at the next month’s meeting. As Ellen Bowman, a newsletter editor, asserts, “You don’t want to be the one who says, ‘I watched ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and sat on the couch for two weeks.’”