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Unlimited Vacation: Rejoice or Regret?

Brittany Mullings

VacationA few weeks ago, Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, decided to give all of his salaried employees unlimited vacation days. In an effort to promote wellness and productivity and boost morale, Sir Richard instituted one of the "simplest and smartest initiatives" he's encountered.

I polled a couple of my friends, family and colleagues and some of the responses I received are below:

"Wow. That's great."
"They're so lucky."
"Do you know how happy I would be if I could travel whenever I want?"
"That must be an amazing place to work."

You get the gist . . . people were impressed.

My response: "Whelp, so much for actually taking vacation."

Let me explain. Yes, unlimited vacation in theory sounds great; however, in practice usually means less time off.

Let's play a game of Q&A to discover why.

Q: Do top firms strive to hire "motivated, hard-working, responsible" employees?
A: Of course ... sounds like the introductory sentence on most company career pages.

Q: Do these attributes of being "motivated, hard-working, and responsible" make these employees more or less likely to take vacation time?
A: Mmhmm ... think about it.

Q: Regardless of how many days they are allotted, do these "motivated, hard-working, and responsible" employees usually take all of their vacation?
A: No. According to, 75 percent of employees with paid time off didn't take all their vacation in 2013. America has also established itself as an extremely hard working culture. In fact, besides South Korea, the U.S. is one of the most vacation-deprived countries in the world. Removing structure from PTO policies will only lead employees to take a minimum number of vacation days.

Q: If you ever do decide to take vacation, who has to cover for you?
A: Your co-workers. This can easily cause vacationers to be on a guilt trip: "If I'm out, Sally will have to cover me again" or cause some minor resentment: "He's out, again? More late nights for me ... "

Q: If you feel the need to keep up, not put pressure on other people, or not have a pile of work waiting for you when you returnwhat do you do while you're on "vacation"?
A: Work.

Q: Although most firms evaluate people based on their own merit, to some degree, employees are evaluated against their peers. Now that your peers are pretty much given permission to not vacatedo you want to be the one island-hopping while others are grinding away?
A: Sigh.

I'll even make an argument that Mr. Branson agrees with me. Let's take a closer look at his blog announcement:

"It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the businessor, for that matter, their careers!"

Do you hear that ... don't let your absences damage your career! Encouraging, right?

So yesit's clear that I am not in support of so-called "unlimited vacation" simply because I firmly believe that it discourages employees from actually taking time off. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, taking breaks and occasionally disconnecting from your work is a sure way to boost your overall productivity and avoid burnout. Although Branson's policy has gained some attention, most companies are still in favor of giving a set amount of vacation daysthank goodnessuse them, don't lose them! End of Story

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