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When companies like Netflix began offering unlimited paid time off (PTO) to employees in 2004, some hailed it as a great idea to give employees the freedom to decide how and when they would take time away from their jobs. It was a boon for workers, especially women, whose main gripe about work has always been the lack of flexibility. But as the years have gone by, it's become apparent that there are some downsides to such policies.
Unlimited time off allows workers to take as much time off as they want during the year as long as they do their jobs as expected. For working women, this sounds ideal as many of them still do the lion's share of domestic chores and may need more time away from the office to juggle personal demands.
But this leaves some women to wonder whether additional time away from work will lead to the perception that they are less-than-dedicated to their jobs. Will taking advantage of unlimited PTO hurt women's careers? And how much time off is too much time off?
Confusion about unlimited PTO — or any vacation time — has been simmering for a while now. The data doesn't point to workers enjoying more leisure time, especially women. Research by the U.S. Travel Association found an imbalance in how limited or unlimited. That might not be surprising since there is some evidence that managers, too, see flexible time off differently for men and women.
Specifically, some managers believe men will prioritize their work when away from the office but believe women will use their time out of the office to take care of their families, says Heejung Chung, a Kent University sociology professor in the U.K.
One example of this confusion over unlimited PTO is Kickstarter, which initially let managers approve as many days off for workers as they wanted. The company later amended its policy to allow only 25 days per year after employees wanted more straightforward guidelines about how much time off they should take.
Interestingly, many of those offering unlimited PTO, such as LinkedIn, Chegg and Oracle, are in the highly competitive IT industry, where workers may feel more compelled to work continually. Further, these workers may take much less time away when they don't have guidelines about what is an acceptable amount of PTO, which is one of the reasons Kickstarter decided to change its policy.
"What we found was that by setting specific parameters around the number of days, there was no question about how much time was appropriate to take from work to engage in personal, creative and family activities," says a Kickstarter spokesperson.
Part of the reluctance for women to take unlimited PTO might be due to an unfamiliarity with this benefit, thanks to how little vacation time American workers are typically granted. For example, the average paid vacation time in the U.S. is 15 days per year, while countries like France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom offer 30 days of paid time off. It's estimated that about one-third of Americans didn't get any paid leave from 2017-2018.
Harriet Chan, co-founder of CocoFounder, a software development company, says that she finds having unlimited time off doesn't damage her career; she usually takes about one to two months of PTO per year. Her longest stretch of time off was three months, which she used to plan her wedding.
The key, she says, is creating a "recovery plan" before taking PTO, which helped her do necessary tasks before she left and cover work while she was gone.
"Some women may feel pressured not to take PTO, especially if they are not effective in their output," Chan says. "On the other hand, other women will not feel the weight on their shoulders if they have created a master plan to handle the pressure surrounding an unlimited paid vacation."