Is Unlimited Paid Time Off A Trap?

Maybe.

Say you work somewhere for three years and never, ever take a vacation. You accrue two weeks of vacation time every year, all of which rolls over into each subsequent year. At the end of your three years, you have six weeks of vacation — essentially a sabbatical that you can take and still get paid, if you’re bold enough to tell your boss that you want six weeks off, all in one go. Friends of mine have been asked to use their vacation time because they don’t get to hold onto it for this exact purpose; they’ll take a personal day here and there, but no one has ever grabbed the bull by the horns and taken the full complement of the time away from work they’ve been hoarding for years.

The solution to the hoarding of time off is the dangling carrot of unlimited vacation days. It sounds very good, doesn’t it? Like an all-you-can-eat taco situation or an open bar at a very good wedding where the DJ plays all the good music and none of the bad.

Unlimited vacation days are a bullet point in the list of amenities, in between the ubiquitous weekly catered lunch and something about gym membership discounts or something something “wellness.” At face value, unlimited vacation time sounds quite appealing. Three weeks a financial quarter to go get your SCUBA certification or to make it to Everest base camp — the dream of the modern workforce. In reality, unlimited time off can feel like the ultimate trap.

Will you be punished for asking to take a month off to travel? What will happen to your job when you get back? Is someone going to be keeping track of how often you use the generous time off policy and will this come up in your review? Is Marcia from HR gossiping about the fact that you’re on vacation again with Anthony in sales?

Part of the reasons employers offer unlimted time off is because the American workforce is not very good at taking time off. When we do, it’s in little bits and pieces — a three day weekend here, a four day weekend there, a day in the middle of the week to go see something or do something that you couldn’t do on a weekend. Of course, this is flexibility. Everyone’s life is different; some people need more time off than others.

The argument for unlimited time off is that it treats employees like people instead of like cogs in a machine, by taking into consideration their individual needs. I recognize that this is a very strong argument and I appreciate the sentiment. I’ve had unlimited time off in jobs before and it has always felt like a trap. For some, asking for a week off feels more stressful than just sitting down and working. Fast Company suggests rebranding the policy, calling it “personalized” or “flexible” time off instead. That feels much more reasonable, even if it is the same concept, though I don’t know how much a rebranding would actually change the behaviors of employees who want to take advantage of their leave policy but don’t feel comfortable doing so.