How to Make the Most of Unlimited Paid Time Off


We know taking time off to recharge is essential to our health, wellness and professional success, but it can be challenging to allocate our days off from work among family obligations, sick days, doctor’s appointments and the vacations we really want to take. There never seems to be enough time. But with the rise of a popular benefit — unlimited paid time off (PTO) — employees are finally doing away with that juggle. It's no wonder that 72% of employees say unlimited PTO is the benefit they want the most, according to MetLife's 2019 Employee Benefit Trends Study.

The idea of unlimited vacation time may seem like nirvana in the minds of many workers, but navigating this benefit can be a challenge. Research shows that people with unlimited PTO actually take less time off than their counterparts with traditional plans. That's hardly an optimal outcome for employer or employee — time away from work is essential for reducing stress, increasing creativity and improving your overall happiness. 

The pros of unlimited PTO

According to the 2019 MetLife Employee Benefit Trends Survey, unlimited paid time off is one of the most desirable benefits across generations — among 80% of Millennials, 70% of Gen Xers, and 63% of Baby Boomers.

Implemented properly, unlimited PTO offers some real advantages. Many employees appreciate flexible time off because it allows them to handle life-related chores — say, doctor or dentist appointments — without depleting vacation time. Many also appreciate not having to accrue vacation days ahead of use. If you've just started a new job, the accrual period can require working for six months or even a year to build up days off.

The cons of unlimited PTO

Perhaps the biggest drawback of non-accrued time off, is that without much guidance from managers or HR, it's easy for employees to be unsure of how to use it. In fact, employees with unlimited PTO took just 13 days off each year on average, compared to 15 days for those with traditional plans.

Such policies can also become complicated if you part ways with your company. Some states require that employers pay out unused vacation time, but with unlimited PTO policies there’s nothing to track — and, therefore, employees aren’t typically reimbursed when leaving a position.

The PTO sweet spot

So, how do you navigate this new frontier of unlimited PTO? These tips can help you get the time off you need and deserve without negatively impacting your company — or your career.

  • Talk with your manager or HR department about what unlimited PTO means. Many companies that offer the benefit still ask employees to officially request time off to ensure that entire teams aren't gone at once.
  • Educate yourself on the vacation time approval process. Who needs to know about your time off? How far in advance do they need notice? A quick medical appointment may entail simply blocking out your calendar, while a week-long backpacking trip likely needs a sign off from your team lead.
  • Plan for your time off, and be strategic. Obviously, you couldn't do your job if you took off half a year or every other week. It’s essential to balance what you'd like to take for vacation against what makes sense professionally, given your team's goals and your role and responsibilities. Try penciling in certain days at the beginning of the year — maybe you’d like to take spring break with your kids or be home between Christmas and New Year's Day. Make your intentions known early and recognize these are popular days — you may need to compromise with colleagues interested in the same time off.
  • Periodically, check in with your coworkers and boss. Ask coworkers how they’re managing their time off. Check with your boss about whether your plan makes sense. Then, take your vacation and don't feel guilty. Whether you're merely resting, traveling the world, or hanging with family, time off is invaluable — it reduces your stress, improves your health and ensures that you're ready and recharged for work.

Finding the balance

Sometimes the need for time off is less flexible. If you’re dealing with a disability, preparing to take maternity leave, or serving as a caregiver to a loved one, speak with your HR department about how unlimited PTO can be tailored to your specific needs. Keep in mind that some states require that employers provide a certain amount of paid sick leave, bereavement time or family leave outside of paid time off.

When approached in a smart, forward-thinking way, unlimited PTO can be a serious perk for employers and employees alike. The benefit not only helps employers recruit and retain great employees, but it ensures that employees can take the time they need, when they need it — and without hassle.