Unlimited Leave Will Be the New Normal (HS Leadership Principle #8)

Collaborate with Human Systems to create a culture that promotes self-care.

This article is part of the Human Systems Organizational Health Leadership Principle series: 15 principles that relate to the overall health of your organization. Other Human Systems Leadership Principles are contained in the Change Management, Community Embedding, Mutual Empowerment, and Ethics categories.

HS Leadership Principle #7: The organization encourages employees’ self-care.

The Power of Autonomy

When working as a social worker in direct service, I had a supervisor with an approach to self-care I had never experienced before: when she could see that work was having a negative effect on our mental health, she told us to take the rest of the day off if we wanted. The first time she made this suggestion to me, I felt incredulous and a little like I was being tricked. I had been working with her for about six months, and I had just met with a family that had a child with a debilitating physical disease that essentially trapped a healthy mind inside an almost completely dysfunctional body. When I spoke with my supervisor about my experience, I started crying, and explained that this meeting had been one in a string of difficult family meetings. She told me that she understood, and in a very matter-of-fact way, directed me to take the rest of the day off. Did she really mean it, or was she using code for “get yourself together?” If I actually took the rest of the day off, would there be unforeseen consequences in the form of subtle, passive-aggressive references to my mental health needs?

I did take the rest of the day off, and there were no unforeseen consequences. The freedom to choose to take a break from work when I was overwhelmed felt so validating. Sometimes I would take a longer lunch break, or run out for coffee, or take a whole mental health day. I was treated like an adult who could manage her own time professionally and effectively, and it resulted in a much better work product. In addition, I ended up working there for over two years, the longest I had ever stayed with an organization up to that point. I attribute the long (for me) stay to the message I got from my supervisor: “you are more valuable to this organization when you are happy and healthy, and you should take care of yourself.” I eventually left to go back to school, which was a welcome change, compared to the reasons I had left organizations in the past: because I was experiencing severe moral injury (burnout), and feeling unheard and undervalued.

We are Approaching a New Normal

The most successful organizations are changing the way they relate to employees with radical policy change. Those of us who do not work in these organizations are often treated a bit like children at work; we are not trusted to manage our own time and productivity. We labor under the assumption that if you don’t put in eight hours (or more) every weekday (and sometimes make yourself available on weekends or evenings), we are not truly earning our paycheck.

Strict adherence to a set amount of face time at work undermines people’s autonomy and productivity. The truth is, people work at different rates and levels of efficiency; thus, one person’s 4-hour day could be another’s 8-hour day. In the wake of the information and communication revolution brought about by the advent of the internet, being on-site all the time is not even required anymore. Many people seem to espouse the view that unless employees are controlled and directed to a certain extent, they will not be productive. In truth, if all of people’s basic needs are being met and they have a positive relationship with the organization, they generally want to be productive and contributing members of society by engaging in meaningful, fulfilling work.

Some organizations are acknowledging and encouraging the better parts of human nature, as well as the advantages afforded to us by new technology, by having a policy of unlimited leave time. According to SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), employees with unlimited vacation time tend to take less vacation than those with a set amount, which may be due to guilt associated with taking time off when it’s not strictly “necessary.” However, organizations should encourage employees to take time off for vacations and mental health days because, among other reasons, more vacation time is associated with higher levels of employee engagement.

A few years ago, a small company, MammothHR, decided to offer a year of unlimited leave to its employees as an experiment. According to the CEO’s article in Fast Company, the policy was a huge success. At the end of the year, employees rated the policy as third most valuable, behind health insurance and the 401(k). The CEO, Nathan Christensen, hypothesized that the message behind the policy was almost more important than the policy itself, because it conveyed the organization’s trust in their employees, and also underscored the employees’ worth.

How to Implement?

The key to implementing an unlimited vacation policy is creating a culture that encourages all employees – especially those in top-level positions – to actually take advantage of the benefit. If vacation time is associated with increased employee engagement, then you want your employees to take vacations and mental health days when they need them. Most employees will feel hesitant about taking vacations that are not using up official “vacation days” because they are afraid of be perceived as lazy. If the organization’s administrative team is the first to take vacations and mental health days, other employees will see that it’s acceptable and do the same.

Learn More

Contact Human Systems to talk about how you could implement an unlimited leave policy in your organization, as well as assess its affect on employees, productivity, and your bottom line.

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