Unlimited Vacation Might Actually Be Bad For Workers

Tech companies have been experimenting with unlimited vacation for a few years now, and the policy has started to spread. But some suspect that it actually hurts workers — which is why Kickstarter just killed it.

Of the many perks Silicon Valley has become known for in recent years — nap pods, free beer, shuttle buses, helicopter rides — unlimited vacation might be the most enticing of all. Gusto (formerly ZenPayroll) offers unlimited paid time off; so do Pocket, Prezi, Evernote, and Netflix. (The practice has spread beyond tech: The century-old General Electric started offering unlimited vacation to "senior professionals" in July.)

But while infinite days off sounds generous, some suspect the open-endedness actually results in people taking less vacation, and burning out faster — which is why Kickstarter, the six-year-old crowdfunding startup based in New York that employs just over 100 people, decided recently to change its vacation policy.

A spokesperson with the company confirmed that while previously there was a "flexible" policy in which managers could approve as many days off for an employee as they felt comfortable with, there's now a cap at 25 days a year. Kickstarter's human resources team felt that providing clearer guidelines would help employees get a better sense of how much leisure time versus work time is right.

Offering workers unlimited vacation is almost like making a bet against them; companies that do it are basically asserting that their employees are more devoted to their jobs and accomplishing work goals than they are to relaxing and having fun. And in the startup environment — where there's a lot of pressure on employees to be constantly working, and to value their jobs as being more qualitatively valuable than just a means to a paycheck — that line of thinking may be an even surer bet. Failing to provide concrete guidelines around how much time off is appropriate may actually make employees feel less entitled to their vacations, ultimately causing them to take off fewer days than they would otherwise. Kickstarter's move to change its policy is an indication that, in one company's case, at least, suspicions about the drawbacks of unlimited vacation were proven correct.

"It's always been important to us to ensure that our team is able to enjoy a quality work/life balance," the Kickstarter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "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."

Kickstarter's decision could have ramifications beyond just its employees — even, maybe, beyond its industry. The perks tech companies offer are more than merely window dressing or Silicon Valley punch lines. They're a signal about how some of the most well-resourced employers in the world are thinking about HR, and, quite often, they're early examples of trends that later ripple out, as companies rush to compete with one another in the perks arms race.

It seems counterintuitive that, in order to get people to take vacation time, Kickstarter had to create an artificial limit on the number of days employees can take off. But it seems possible that when it comes to leisure time, people actually like having some rules.


Gusto was formerly known as ZenPayroll. An earlier version of this post misstated its name.

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