On paper, it seems admirable. But practically, it doesn’t hold much water.

An unlimited vacation policy is more of a virtue signal for employees than a literal interpretation. It’s often used to make a strong statement about an organisation’s forward-thinking nature and culture of freedom and responsibility. It promises to put work done over hours worked and seeks to ‘save’ employees from being tracked.

Most importantly, it attempts to signal trust in employees, saying “look, we believe in you to take time off when you need it”. The unspoken end of that sentence, though, is “without overstepping, and when you’ve finished work”.

And that’s where the problem lies.

The issues with the unlimited PTO promise

From experience, here’s what we’ve seen:

There are no guiding parameters

You see, unlimited leave assumes that working individuals are capable of taking time off within reason. But the jury’s still out (on purpose, it would seem) on the definition of ‘within reason’. Are two weeks good enough? Are three months too long? If I take half a year off, am I crossing an unspoken line?

Unlimited vacation time is fighting the wrong problem

The problem in our ‘always on’ culture isn’t overuse of vacation time, but underuse. The ambiguity breeds anxiety and guilt — the anxiety over how many vacation days is acceptable, the guilt ensuing over “taking advantage” of a generous offer. And so, we find it difficult to switch off and chill out during a vacation or defer them until completely burnt out.

Unlimited vacation time increases animosity in teams

Apart from uncertainty, you’ll also find a sense of injustice over how many days others are taking. Some take on more work to make up for vacation days; others shift the pressure onto unsuspecting colleagues during emergencies. Unlimited vacation time can spark a crab-bucket effect, where team members coerce each other to work nearly all the time without a breather. That never bodes well for any organisation.

Ironically, then, the idea of unlimited vacation days adds to the very culture it’s trying to fight. And vacation carte blanche undermines a basic human instinct: the need for a clear set of boundaries.

So what’s better than unlimited PTO?

In short, clear policies and mandatory vacation time. Hold up: that’s not a license to enforce a strict and inflexible policy, though. Here’s what we mean by it:

Set expectations and boundaries

Both of these get a bad rap for being “inflexible” and “uncool”. But they’re better than the alternative: a team of nervous employees feeling confused about how much vacation time is too much, or guilty about how much they truly need.

Specify minimum or maximum vacation days

Plenty of firms have backpedalled after their first taste of unlimited vacation policies, choosing instead to outline a generous number of vacation days.

This isn’t anything like monitoring team members’ every movement, which is a tad too Orwellian. Laying out a minimum number of vacation days is more guiding and encouraging. And if there’s ever a need for more time, you can cross that bridge when you get there!

Unlimited vacation time isn’t an admirable job perk…

But here’s what is: having empathetic boundaries, knowing what’s acceptable, and keeping each other in the loop.

So don’t let the lofty promise of endless summers fool you. The mental sunburn isn’t worth it.