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The Irony of Unlimited Leaves

They say vacation calories do not count. But what about vacation days? Well, as it turns out they are now becoming limitless too. Chained to their desks, while corporate workers reek of exhaustion, unlimited leaves seem to be a dream come true. They give them much-needed flexibility and are aimed at boosting productivity. With everybody craving rest, one would think such policies would lead to more holidays being taken. Paradoxically, the opposite has become true.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy

Originally an innovation belonging to Silicon Valley’s tech giants, unlimited paid leaves are now being adopted by renowned conglomerates like Myntra, Netflix, Goldman Sachs, and LinkedIn to appear more liberal towards their employees' work-life balance. Such policies accommodate each employee’s needs, providing them with greater autonomy to work and relax at their speed. Unlimited paid time off (PTO) here entails no set rules on how many paid leaves are to be taken for whichever reasons — as long as one’s goals are met and the leave details communicated to the managers. Reasonably, it is not truly infinite.

On the surface, unlimited PTOs appear fantastic; but they are not devoid of pitfalls. Absurdly, open vacations have resulted in even fewer people taking leaves! For instance, the US-based HR platform Namely analyzed over 1 lakh responses regarding unlimited and limited leave policies. Significantly, results indicated that those with unlimited PTO plans took 13 days off per year as compared to the traditional PTO employees’ 15 days off.

So, where is the system failing? When such policies are created, the idea is to have something that will maximize productivity. But, the one-size-fits-all mindset does not work. Bowing down to peer pressure, employees do not wish to be seen as someone who is not interested in work or is not inclined to be responsible towards the company. We begin to fear gossip, mockery at the hands of our colleagues, or worse still, firing by the employer during downsizing. Counterintuitive to its purpose, taking time off as per one’s wish causes worrying among people about being perceived a certain way by superiors for overworking signifies success. This is another pertinent issue. Today’s corporate mantra is all about overworking and starving oneself of food, family time, and rest becomes a prerequisite for success. When co-workers all around you earn praise by slaving away on the weekends, grinding even on festivals, and pulling all-nighters, taking breaks denotes a dead-end for your career. Adding on to these beliefs, when stories of business icons and highly-successful people’s short or at times zero sleep schedules are blindly read, the hustle culture grows.

Indian workplace culture is no exception. While foreigners flock to India to rejuvenate among the most serene forests and rivers with their yoga pamphlets, most Indians do not know how to separate themselves from their work. Worshiping work becomes our identity and rest is not treated as sacred. It is almost as if our work is opposed to vacations and taking a day off for recharging means that you are crowned as the slack master. Kissing up to the boss is common and facetime invaluable, making people hesitant to use their leaves even after communicating for they feel it hinders their path to the top rungs of the corporate ladder. Disregarding their own needs, they strain to figure out their boss’s perception regarding the right number of leaves that can be taken without being shamed. Such overidentification with work ultimately results in burnout, bringing us back to square one. Evidently, Indian companies like MakeMyTrip, Pazcare, and Addverb Technologies observed no clear change in leaves (apart from sick ones) being taken since the policy’s initiation.

With definite leaves, a specific trend was set but unlimited holidays suffer from a lack of benchmarks. People struggle to recognize where to draw the line due to ambiguity. This is overwhelming since each individual is different and there is no common yardstick to take time off without feeling guilty. Instead, people look at those around them to carefully calculate the typical number of leaves taken, causing unhealthy competition. However, when we refuse to take holidays because others don’t, others do the same and the vicious cycle continues, furthering stress. The perk given thus becomes a privilege.

Another problem that is causing policy failure is that employees fear a greater workload post-leaves. With one person taking too many holidays, others are burdened to cover for them, especially in start-ups. This was one of the reasons CharlieHR chose to remove unlimited PTO and instead develop something that worked for them.

Unintended/Intended Paradox

With all its caveats, is unlimited PTO simply a marketing and recruiting tool? It is certainly better for finances because employers no longer have to annually pay out unused vacation days. More leaves meant lesser leaves in reality and perhaps some reverse psychology was at play. This is true for certain companies which simply introduced unlimited PTOs and made no effort to promote them.

Amidst all this, Kronos presents an excellent example of a company that actively made efforts. Using their savings from unlimited PTO, they gave other benefits like maternity leave, childcare programs, etc. They regularly tracked leaves and hired consultants to solve issues hands-on. Ultimately, the policy was a huge success with employees taking 2.6 days more than the previous year.

The solution here is two-fold. To avoid becoming work martyrs, the workplace culture requires a paradigm shift. Time off and productivity should be seen as a part of the same equation. Instead of fantasizing about neutralizing corporate slavery, management needs to be alert and develop tools to communicate well. At best unlimited PTO improves the well-being of workers; at worst it results in greater losses. Each organization operates differently and double-edged policies like these should be developed and tweaked keeping that in mind.

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