Limited or Unlimited Vacation Time?

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree July 09, 2022

Here at Corporate Rebels, we value freedom at work. A lot. It's up to everyone to decide for themselves when and where they work. We don't track hours, working days, vacation days, or any of that sort. And we love it. But the fact that we love it doesn't mean it's easy.

First, let me get one big misconception out of the way. A workplace built around purpose, freedom, trust, autonomy, and passion is not as Utopian as it sounds.

Sure, it's way better (in my humble opinion) than the traditional top-down management structure, where people are treated like children who need to be told what to do, but it's not all roses and sunshine.

It comes with its own set of problems, challenges and limitations. And here's one of them: finding your ideal balance between work and all other priorities in life.

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Unlimited vacation time

Many companies who have implemented (or experimented with) unlimited vacation time learn that people tend to take less vacation time than they would when there's a fixed number of days available to them.

Interesting paradox, right? People take less time off when they can take as much time off as they want.

The response?

Many of these companies come up with a minimum amount of vacation days. "You can decide for yourself how many days you take, but you have to take at least X amount."

At first, this seems to make perfect sense. It's an admirable attempt to protect employees from exhaustion and burnout.

Employers caring that much about the wellbeing of their employees should be applauded, for sure. They're likely to be in the 99th percentile of best employers.

Paternalism vs. autonomy

Even so, something about the solution is bugging me. Isn't setting a minimum number of vacation days just another prescriptive rule that creates a parent/child type of relationship between employer and employee?

Doesn't it convey the message that the wellbeing of employees is the responsibility of the employer? "We take care of you, because, apparently, you can't take care of yourself?"

Employers shouldn't prescribe a minimum amount of hours of sleep, right? A minimum amount of vitamins with your lunch? Or a minimum amount of exercise during your work day?

No work ≠ no stress

Aside from the danger of promoting paternalism, there's also the fact that vacation time doesn't equal relaxation. If the work you leave behind to go on your mandatory vacation always feels as stressful as trying to thread a needle while riding a unicycle in the rain, that won't help you avoid burnout or stress.

In fact, it might result in the exact opposite.

Reducing stress, exhaustion, and burnout isn't achieved by simply lying around and sipping from a coconut on a tropical island. It's done by solving the real issue: the stressful nature of the work itself (e.g., lack of autonomy, lack of meaning, expectation overload, etc.).

Finding the right balance

So, instead of being prescriptive about it, shouldn't we just embrace the fact that life is hard and every individual should learn how to deal with it themselves?

It's similar to learning how to walk: you might fall down and hurt yourself a couple of times, but that doesn't mean we should take away the opportunity to learn.

I believe it's much better to provide support rather than protection.

It's in everyone's interest to learn for themselves how to strike their ideal balance between work and other aspects of life. For some, that might mean 20 vacation days per year, for others, it could mean 50.

Interesting paradox, right? People take less time off when they can take as much time off as they want.
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Limited or unlimited vacation time?

It's a tough one, for sure. And I don't mean to bring down the honest efforts of great companies who're trying to protect their people, but I believe there's infinitely more value in supporting people to learn than in protecting them by limiting them.

Once again, this goes back to the paradox of progressive workplaces. It would be so much easier to simply tell everyone how many days they need to take off and when they must come to work.

But we don’t want to do that. We prefer that everyone goes through the struggle and learns how to deal with such challenges.

Because, well, that’s life. And it's a whole lot of fun.

What do you prefer?

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the topic. Which do you prefer?


Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
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