Professor emerita Lotte Bailyn says managers need to lead by example when it comes to work-life balance.  Image:  Brooks Canaday
Professor emerita Lotte Bailyn says managers need to lead by example when it comes to work-life balance. Image: MIT News / Brooks Canaday

Richard Branson recently announced that employees of his company, Virgin, may now take as many vacation days as they want, whenever they want. Unlimited vacation time might sound like a great job perk, but is it?

MIT Sloan School of Management professor emerita Lotte Bailyn told the Huffington Post that such a policy “sounds not well-thought out. People take less time off because they feel they’re not sure if this is really a commitment to them or that this is more a PR thing.”

Although studies consistently point to the benefits of vacations—improved job performance, lower stress levels—the majority of Americans who receive paid time off do not use all of their allocated vacation time. A recent study by travel company Expedia found that Americans typically use 10 out of the 14 days they’re given. And, as Bailyn noted in an essay last year for Quartz about similar policies at corporations such as Netflix and Best Buy, “Even those employees who do take time off from work are still largely tethered to the office.”

Reasons employees shun vacation vary, from fearing their coworkers will view them as lazy, to stockpiling time for a future trip, or a sense of workplace insecurity. The prospect of unlimited time away from the office introduces a new set of problems: “Too much choice is restrictive and confusing,” according to Bailyn. “When vacation time is offered as an unlimited resource, many people decide not to take advantage because it’s too hard to figure out the right amount to take.”

So what’s the solution? For one thing, Bailyn encourages managers to lead by example and give themselves a break: “Allowing unlimited vacation time will only work if reasonable norms are established and acted on by executives and managers as well as their subordinates.”

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