The idea of unlimited vacation time may seem like nirvana in the minds of many workers. But navigating this benefit can be a challenge. Employees with unlimited PTO 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 percent of Millennials, 70 percent of Gen Xers, and 63 percent 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 several 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
How do you navigate this new frontier of unlimited PTO? Try these four tips:
1. Talk with your manager or HR department
Understand their expectations about how employees should use PTO. Many companies still ask employees to officially request time off and make sure they have coverage to ensure that entire teams aren't gone at once.
2. Educate yourself on the 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 trip likely needs a sign off from your team lead.
3. Be strategic about planning time off
It’s essential to balance what you'd like to take for vacation against what makes sense, 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 that you may need to compromise with colleagues interested in taking the same time off.
4. Understand special circumstances
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 an excellent perk. The benefit not only helps employers recruit and retain talent, but it ensures that employees can take the time they need, when they need it, and without hassle.