Ever heard your work friends sigh about not having enough vacation days?
It’s like a chorus in a symphony of the overworked, with the beats of long workdays and non-stop tasks stretched out before us to seemingly no end.
And yet, believe it or not, the vacation days we do get don’t even get used! On average, most American workers do not take all of their precious pait time off.
Why is that? And what’s being done to change things?
The world of work is going through a bit of a shake-up. With the rise in identification of and vocabulary used to describe the often negative impacts of hustle culture (think of terms like burnout, soft life, quiet quitting, the great resignation), today’s workforce is demanding more than just an important title and a corner office. We want a life outside of work, too.
This fundamental shift in our relationship with work is inspiring some changes, like companies in the US starting to offer Unlimited Paid Time Off (PTO).
But what is Unlimited PTO? Is it real, or is it something simply too good to be true?
Below, I’ll break down what Unlimited Paid Time Off really is, what it isn’t, and how you can properly and realistically use this budding new vacation policy to your advantage!
So What Is Unlimited PTO, Exactly?
Essentially, unlimited paid time off is a policy that allows employees to take as many vacation days as they need without a set limit. The idea is that when you feel the need for a long or short break, you can take the time off without worrying about how many vacation days you’ll have left.
Theoretically, this sounds like a dream come true for the overworked American, doesn’t it? Especially when you think about how stingy the US can be when it comes to vacation days.
However, in practice, unlimited PTO is a bit more complicated. Many people feel uncertain about how much time off is acceptable, and unspoken expectations may discourage people from taking as much time off as they might under a traditional vacation policy.
There is an unspoken fear in corporate America that taking time off will make you seem unmotivated or uncommitted.
This belief fuels burnout, stunts productivity, and creates an overwork loop that brings down individual well-being and organizational success.
So, let’s talk about why unlimited PTO is becoming more popular in the first place.
The Rise in Popularity of Unlimited PTO
Unlimited PTO policies have gained popularity as businesses look for creative ways to attract and keep employees, especially in the tech industry, where competition for skilled workers is fierce.
Companies adopting these policies often believe they promote a healthier work-life balance and give employees a sense of autonomy and trust.
However, not everyone uses unlimited PTO policies as intended. According to Forbes Advisor and the US Travel Association, “the average American takes 17 PTO days a year while workers with unlimited PTO take 10 days off.”
It seems weird, right? Why wouldn’t you want to escape from work as often as possible if given the opportunity? The reality is… it’s just not that simple for most people. Here’s why:
- Lack of Clear Boundaries: When there’s no specified limit to how much vacation time employees can take, it can create uncertainty. Employees might not know how much time off is considered “acceptable” and may err on the side of caution by taking less time off instead.
- Unspoken Expectations: Even if a company officially has an unlimited PTO policy, there can be unspoken expectations or pressure to not take full advantage of it. Employees may worry that taking too much time off could make them seem less dedicated or ambitious.
- Overwhelm and Burnout: Employees who feel overworked or stressed might think they can’t afford to take time off, even though it’s precisely what they need. This can be particularly prevalent in high-pressure work environments.
- Fear of Falling Behind: Employees might worry about the amount of work they’ll have to catch up on if they take time off, or fear that important decisions will be made in their absence.
- Job Security Concerns: In uncertain economic times, employees might feel that taking less time off will make them appear more visible, more committed, and thus, more secure in their jobs.
- Lack of Usage Encouragement: Companies must actively encourage employees to take time off and foster a culture that supports vacations to ensure individuals feel comfortable using their unlimited PTO.
You might be thinking, okay, this whole ‘unlimited PTO’ thing sounds rigged.
And it can be.
But as someone with several years of experience working at a company offering unlimited PTO, I’ve seen both the ugly and the good sides of this policy. I can honestly say today that I enjoy an incredibly healthy work culture around PTO, and because of this, I know that it’s possible for unlimited PTO policies – and the businesses and people that use them – to be successful.
While our work culture tries to thrive on using up as much of our time as possible, many companies can and have succeeded in making unlimited PTO work to everyone’s advantage. These companies typically make it super clear to everyone how this vacation policy works, and they encourage their employees to actually spend time away from their desks. Imagine that!
In these company environments, even bosses and managers (ideally) take their own vacations and reinforce healthy work-life relationships. They understand that it’s not about how long you’re stuck at your desk, but the quality of work you deliver.
You have to love that kind of trust and freedom, right?
Now, flip the coin, and some companies use this unlimited vacation stuff as a sneaky trick to save cash. They don’t have to pay you for unused vacation days when you leave because, technically, there aren’t any!
And when they lump sick and vacation days into one big pool, they’re not on the hook to give guaranteed sick leave. It looks good on their books, but it can leave their people feeling like they’re getting a raw deal, especially if the main perk – flexible time off from work – isn’t promoted or enforced. Ultimately, this could hurt the company’s culture and even make people think twice about sticking around.
So how does unlimited PTO work if there’s this much nuance to navigate? There are definitely a couple of ways you shouldn’t approach it. Familiarize yourself with these misconceptions before we dive into best practices for using your unlimited PTO properly.
The Work-From-Anywhere Misconception
One misconception about unlimited PTO is that it allows people to work from different locations.
While it’s true that remote work and flexible schedules are increasingly common, location flexibility is not to be confused with an unlimited PTO policy.
The goal of unlimited PTO is for employees to genuinely disconnect, recharge, and return refreshed – not just to shift where someone is logging in from.
We all know travel can make us more accepting, more creative, and less stressed. It gives us a break from the daily routine and lets us gain new perspectives about the world and ourselves.
That said, rest is equally important. It’s crucial for physical and mental health, improving our mood, and reducing anxiety.
While the flexibility of working from anywhere might ease some of the tension from the daily grind, it does not offer the same mental, physical, and emotional benefits of taking time away from work.
The PTO Abuse Problem
Like with anything, there’s always a risk that too much of a good thing can actually be a serious problem.
In an ideal world, we want to make the most of this incredible perk without pushing it too far. So, it’s important to realize that unlimited PTO does not mean you can disappear whenever you want on a whim, and abuse the system by suddenly taking dozens of days off at a time.
But what’s a company wanting to implement unlimited PTO to do?
One approach could be to let everyone know the average amount of PTO people generally take. Kind of like setting a standard as a launching point. It’s a way to gently hint at what’s considered reasonable, adding a bit of clarity to this “unlimited” thing. I’ve asked my HR colleagues what our stats are as a company when it comes to vacation time, before. The data definitely exists.
Another strategy could be to encourage a strong sense of teamwork and cooperation. It’s all about having each other’s backs. If we cover for each other when someone’s away, it helps keep the wheels turning and ensures that no one person’s absence leaves a huge gap.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s all about balancing our freedom to take time off with our responsibility to our work.
Unlimited PTO is a fantastic benefit, but it takes everyone’s trust and a certain level responsibility and accountability to make it work. By setting clear expectations and promoting a positive and respectful work environment, companies can keep things fair and ensure the system works well for everyone. And, this trust goes both ways.
How to Use Your Unlimited PTO Properly
Now that we know what unlimited PTO is and how not to use it, let’s explore some ways to actually take advantage of this benefit!
To reap the benefits of unlimited PTO, you should absolutely plan to fully disconnect while away. In order to do so, you’ll need to prepare ahead of time with your managers and coworkers, find ways to optimize your vacation days, and have a plan in place for your return.
Preparing for Your Time Away From Work
Preparing for your time off is critical to its success as a policy. List all the projects or tasks you have in the pipeline, and think about which ones you’ll be able to wrap up before you leave and which ones will need to be covered by a teammate.
Remember, it’s all about ensuring things keep flowing while you’re out so your absence is not seen as a bottleneck.
Next up, be sure to communicate your time off plans with other key people on your team. Ensure that your team knows not only the dates you’ll be gone, but who is covering for you, what your plans are for any projects or deadlines taking place while you’re out, and whether or not you’ll be reachable in case of work emergencies. And don’t worry – it’s okay to set boundaries here!
If you’re planning to totally disconnect, that’s completely fine. Just make sure people know this so they don’t immediately try to reach you or expect you to reply.
On the flip side, if you know you’re on the hook for a really important deadline and you want to give your work friends covering you some support, be transparent with them about when you’ll be reachable, and how (I’m personally the most accessible via WhatsApp when I’m out of the country, for example).
Lastly, don’t forget the “out of office” – your ultimate ally in peace-of-mind vacationing. Set up a clear out-of-office message for your email, and maybe even for your work chat platform, letting people know you’re away, who to reach out to in your absence, and when you’ll be back.
Maximizing your ‘Me Time’
I know it’s tempting to check your emails while lounging by the pool but trust me, your mind needs a break.
Do yourself a favor and turn off your work notifications, or even better, remove your work email account from your phone for the duration of your holiday.
Go on – you can do it!
Now, onto making the most of your ‘me time.’ Plan some fun stuff, sure, but remember to leave some time for just lazing around – it’s your holiday, after all! You don’t have to have every minute scheduled.
You might find that these unplanned moments are some of the best.
Frequent short breaks are awesome, but if you’re taking an extended vacation, set up a loose “holiday schedule” for yourself to maintain some structure.
Designate a handful of times for checking emails, returning phone calls, and updating your colleagues (if your vacation policy requires it). It’ll make your days more memorable, keep up your momentum, and make your return to work easier.
Making Your Return to Work
Now that you’ve had an amazing, relaxing, inspiring vacation, it’s time to return to work.
Try not to jump straight back into work the moment you’re home. If possible, allow yourself a day or two to settle back in, do some laundry, restock the fridge, and crack open your inbox. Having this buffer can make the transition from holiday to work mode much easier.
And when it’s time to get back to work, start with a catch-up. Check in with your team or manager to get an update on what you missed while away. This can help you get up to speed without feeling too overwhelmed.
And remember, you don’t have to respond to all your emails in one go. Prioritize them and tackle them bit by bit.
Last but not least, hold onto your vacation vibe for as long as you can! Maybe put a vacation photo as your desktop wallpaper or keep the book you just finished while sunbathing the days away on your desk for a while. These little reminders can help keep that post-vacation glow going.
Or if you’re like me, keep it going by starting to dream up your next vacation! If you are courteous to your team, demonstrate that you are getting your work done on time, and plan ahead for your PTO accordingly, there shouldn’t be any issue with you using your unlimited PTO policy the way it was intended to be used.
And there you have it! Unlimited PTO is really revolutionary and empowering when it’s done right. It’s a nod to the trust and respect between a company and its employees, creating a culture that truly values human life and understands where work fits within the equation.
Unlimited PTO can allow us to recharge, explore, and spend time doing more of the things we want to do, all while fostering our professional growth.
But remember, it’s ultimately up to you to utilize this perk wisely. Keep these tips in mind to help you use your unlimited PTO responsibly and to the fullest extent (and, to encourage your peers to do the same!). Happy vacationing!
Do you work at a company with an unlimited PTO policy? How are you finding it? Does it work for you? Let me know in the comments!