S'pore employees with unlimited annual leave tell us if they actually benefit from this staff benefit

The policy has often been touted as a perk — but is it really?

Tanya Ong | August 22, 2021, 09:42 AM

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In 2003, CEO Reed Hastings introduced a controversial No Vacation Policy at Netflix, well-ahead of its time.

The unlimited vacation policy would eventually be adopted by many other companies (widely publicised ones include LinkedIn, General Electric and Dropbox) and sometimes even touted as a perk.

The legal minimum amount of leave days an employee in Singapore is entitled to? Seven, and that is if they are covered by the Employment Act and have worked for the employer for at least three months.

Most companies, however, typically offer anywhere between 14-21 days.

And given these numbers, an unlimited number of vacation days does sound like a dream. But is it really?

When Hastings explained how he came up with the policy in his book No Rules Rules, he had acknowledged that there was a fear that staff would turn into "zombies" from not being able to take a break.

One of their managers "Donna", who is always getting up early and working late, was a case in point.

Donna hadn't taken a true vacation in four years because a sense of insecurity constantly gnawed at her: She didn't want to appear like she isn't working hard enough. To make things worse, her entire team consisted of workaholics, so she felt pressured to be at work constantly.

Donna's story hints at the possible gaps between employee privileges and the disturbing realities of work culture: Unlimited leave policies only work well when employees are actually able and willing to go on vacation where required.

"It could lead to a lot of guilt tripping"

In environments where it is simply not conducive to go on leave — either due to the sheer amount of work that cannot be handed over, or because team mates and bosses make it incredibly difficult for employees to be away by guilt-tripping them or requesting that they set aside some time for a "very important meeting" on their vacation day — the unlimited leave policy turns out to be a perk, but only on paper.

31-year-old Ben, who spent four years working for a Southeast Asian company with unlimited vacation days, explained how things can turn toxic very quickly if employees are afraid to go on vacations:

"Unlimited leave can hold employees back from taking leave for fear of taking more leave than the 'norm' or their peers. With no fixed number of days, there is no longer any existing benchmark for what is acceptable in the company."

Worse still, Ben highlighted how such a policy can also make it easier for managers to convince their subordinates to defer their leave to a later time in the year, or the following year since there is technically no cap on the leave days per year.

Kate (not her real name) echoed the importance of culture and being willing to "cover for one another" so that others can take a proper break. The 25-year-old works for an American advertising agency in Singapore offering unlimited leave days.

"My company is actually very supportive of people taking the leave they feel they need. My managers never guilt trip me when I take leave and actively try to make sure that we're not disturbed while on leave.

I think if management isn't actively supportive, it could lead to a lot of guilt tripping, judgement and lead to a pretty unhealthy work environment."

This is also why it's so important for managers to "lead by example and take time off for important life events outside of work," Ben added.

The irony of having unlimited leave is that you may end up taking fewer leave days

Hastings claimed in 2015 that he takes around six weeks of vacation a year, according to CNBC, and even urged his employees to do the same.

But not everyone sees the need to be away for so long — and that's fine, as long as the number of leave days works well for them.

Ben, who worked in a startup, didn't go on leave at all in the first two years. In the next two years, he took about 10 days a year.

27-year-old Wendy (not her real name), who also worked at the same company, admitted that she, too, "didn't really think much about taking leave", and ended up only taking around 15 days of leave in two years.

An average of five days per year spread across four years might prompt one to think that Ben was surely working himself too hard. Interestingly, Ben also admitted that he was likely to have taken more leave days if he was allocated a fixed number.

"Not because I needed the extra break but because a fixed number of leave days would likely have anchored my mind towards that number."

The same goes for Wendy, who also said that she would have felt "pressured to use up the balance" if she had a fixed amount.

However, both Wendy and Ben told Mothership that they are "generally satisfied" with their leave situation. Ben also added that he "took the time off that (he) needed".

Which, come to think of it, is perfectly in line with the spirit of the policy of taking any many rest days as one requires.

"It's just peace of mind not having to always calculate the number of days left"

Done well, an unlimited vacation policy can be beneficial to the mental well-being of employees.

Kate said that the unlimited leave policy at the company she works for allows her to "feel better about taking leave" as she would not need to worry about "saving" her leave days.

She is also "overall quite happy" with the amount of leave she has taken, adding that she "feels rested" and is "in a good head space about work".

"With fixed days, I was always trying to save the days. Even when I felt like I was burning out a little, I would just plough through for the sake of 'saving leave'. With unlimited leave, it's easier to balance family obligations and social life. I feel better about taking leave because I know I'm not using up a limited number of days. For example, I can afford to take a day off to take my dog to the vet and have enough days to go on that family holiday — it's just peace of mind not having to always calculate the number of days left."

"It can be abused by both employers or employees"

When Hastings introduced policies such as unlimited vacation and no approval needed for company expenses, he was well-aware of the risks.

"The challenge of freedom is that it can be abused," Hastings was quoted saying in an interview with NPR. "There are very few people who do abuse it, but it's a pity when it happens."

The drawbacks of offering such freedoms is that it is entirely possible for employees to exploit such a policy and consistently underperform or fall behind, Wendy said.

Not that she's observed such behaviour at her company, though, she quickly clarified.

Focusing on output & KPIs

In Wendy's view, a successful implementation of such a policy requires the company to accurately measure and manage output and KPIs.

Employees need the assurance that their work is done. They also need an understanding of what high quality work looks like, based on clear assessment metrics.

Without these indicators of what good performance is, it is entirely possible that an employee, fuelled by insecurity, would feel the need to put in longer hours in an endless pursuit to prove their worth.

Having a work culture oriented towards the number of hours put in, rather than valuing output and quality of work,  also means that staff may not feel adequately empowered to take breaks when required.

Learning how to recharge properly — regardless of the policy

So, is unlimited leave an actual benefit or not?

It may be useful to go back to the intended benefit of why unlimited vacation days were even offered in the first place.

The policy is intended to give people greater autonomy. Without the "distraction of stifling rules", the leadership can focus on performance and results rather than micromanaging how the job gets done.

Kronos CEO Aaron Ain was quoted saying:

"In an era when so many employees are plugged in around the clock, official policies that depend on clearly delineating when they’re 'at work' or 'on vacation' strike me as antiquated or even foolish."

However, as Ben pointed out:

"Unlimited leave is a double edged sword. The policy needs to be executed well in order for it to benefit employees."

For instance, it should not be too difficult for staff to go on breaks when required. And breaks should also be treated as such — employees should not be expected to be constantly available even when they're on leave.

Perhaps it's not so much about the number of days of vacation that one takes, but rather, whether they can use their leave days to properly recharge with much-needed time off.

After all, it is important to remember that unlimited annual leave is not an actual staff benefit if staff can't benefit from it.

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Top photo via Joshua Newton/Unsplash, Wonderlane/Unsplash.