science of us

The Guilt-Inducing Psychology of Unlimited Vacation Time

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It feels like a gift: Unlimited vacation time. It sounds so … European. Many companies (particularly in the start-up and tech spheres) are starting to offer it to their employees in lieu of the more traditional model, in which a fixed number of vacation days are either given outright or accrued. More recently popularized by Richard Branson, the unlimited-vacation model is predicated on the idea that happy, rested employees make for successful companies, and that most people, if given the option, won’t abuse such a policy. This much, it seems, is true. In fact, early research shows that employees with so-called unlimited vacation actually take fewer days off on average than their limited vacation counterparts: 13 days as opposed to 15. For many employees, unlimited vacation simply feels too good to be true.

Here I must admit that my own interpretation of the definition of “unlimited vacation days” is “15 days or fewer.” (My new employer, the Cut, has an unlimited vacation policy.) Why? I guess because 15 days is the maximum number of days off I’ve ever been granted by previous employers, and it’s impossible for me to imagine that this one really wants for me to take any more. Like so many of my mid-level, eight-to-six, corporate peers, I remain somewhat wary.

Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and director of the Center for Progressive Development, a nonprofit consulting organization, says part of the challenge here has to do with the gap between what companies claim to want to be versus the values espoused by their actions. “As there’s a push to try to make a work culture a more supportive, team-oriented kind of culture that promotes and rewards innovation and creativity, that can clash with old top-down command and control policies,” says LaBier. “So if a culture has been more traditional, and then it says they’re going to try unlimited vacation, that can create some backlash.” It’s not that employees are ungrateful for policies like these — it’s that they’re not used to them, and unfamiliar developments in familiar settings are … scary. (And, okay fine, some employees are mad about it; see this very active Reddit thread on the subject.)

In order for unlimited-vacation policies to be taken seriously by employees, companies have to foster a culture that makes taking time off feel not only possible, but welcomed, says LaBier. “Management culture has to convey what it means in terms of its values, authentically. If you feel like it’s authentic, that can make you feel a little freer and less guilty about taking the time off,” says LaBier. “But if you sense this is maybe a technique they’re trying to make you work harder, to always call in or be on the computer even if we take the time off, then you’ll think it’s a gimmick.” It’s all about framing: “Take as much time as you want” is light-years away from “Take as much time as you need,” for instance.

Alison Green, the voice behind the popular Ask a Manager blog and the Cut’s Ask A Boss advice column, calls this perceptual hurdle the biggest downside to unlimited vacation policies for employees, explaining, “Because people aren’t told ‘you get X days per year,’ they have no idea what’s okay to take, and then end up not taking time off that they could because they don’t want to be seen as slackers.” While Green agrees that unlimited-vacation policies treat employees like “adults,” what happens when employees kind of, sort of, want to be treated like children?

For most employees, the balance between too much structure and too little is a fine one: Science suggests that we most of us don’t like rules that are too strict or too lenient. People are most comfortable with moderation: rules that are clearly stated, but allow for some flexibility. While autonomy is important, it’s not more important than being given clear expectations. Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State, likens the most successful approach to the one you’d use on, well, toddlers: not too firm, not too relaxed.

A few companies have already taken steps to restore some soothing guidelines around those open-ended vacation policies — at Evernote, employees who don’t take at least a week off during the year forfeit a $1,000 bonus, and the German software company Travis CI has switched over to a “minimum vacation policy,” requiring employees take at least 25 days off per year. The business analytics company Baremetrics, too, has instituted a four-week minimum, stipulating that those weeks include at least one full week (or longer) vacation.

Measures like these might go a long way toward encouraging those employees who are used to more conservative workplaces to take vacation seriously. “If you come from a more traditional background or mind-set yourself, and you’re used to restrictions, unlimited vacation could feel very uncomfortable,” says LaBier, hurtfully and correctly identifying me as the rules-obsessed, type-A, stick in the mud that I am. I don’t know if I like being told what to do any more than the next person, but having gone to Catholic school, having grown up with parents who didn’t let me watch Friends — these things create a pattern that’s hard to break out of, even if I’m being told I’m free to do so. Perhaps the reason I will probably never take more than 15 to 20 (maybe) days off is because I was groomed to be a rule-follower and I will die one, too.

As LaBier puts it — again, devastatingly — “It’s like these animals they try to release from captivity, where they bring them into a natural environment, and they open the cage door, and the animals are too frightened to step outside. It can be like that.”

The Anxious Psychology of Unlimited Vacation Time