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POLICY AND PRACTICE REVIEWS
published: 24 March 2022
University of Trento, Italy
Eindhoven University of Technology,
Zhejiang Gongshang University, China
This article was submitted to
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 09 November 2021
Accepted: 21 February 2022
Published: 24 March 2022
de Bloom J, Syrek CJ, Kühnel J
and Vahle-Hinz T (2022) Unlimited
Paid Time Off Policies: Unlocking
the Best and Unleashing the Beast.
Front. Psychol. 13:812187.
Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies:
Unlocking the Best and Unleashing
Jessica de Bloom1,2 , Christine J. Syrek3, Jana Kühnel4*and Tim Vahle-Hinz5
1Faculty of Social Sciences, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland, 2Department of HRM&OB, Faculty of Economics
and Business, University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands, 3Department of Business Psychology, University of Applied
Sciences Bonn-Rhein-Sieg, Rheinbach, Germany, 4Department of Occupational, Economic and Social Psychology,
University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria, 5Department of Organizational, Business, and Social Psychology, Psychologische
Hochschule Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Unlimited paid time off policies are currently fashionable and widely discussed by HR
professionals around the globe. While on the one hand, paid time off is considered a key
beneﬁt by employees and unlimited paid time off policies (UPTO) are seen as a major
perk which may help in recruiting and retaining talented employees, on the other hand,
early adopters reported that employees took less time off than previously, presumably
leading to higher burnout rates. In this conceptual review, we discuss the theoretical
and empirical evidence regarding the potential effects of UPTO on leave utilization,
well-being and performance outcomes. We start out by deﬁning UPTO and placing
it in a historical and international perspective. Next, we discuss the key role of leave
utilization in translating UPTO into concrete actions. The core of our article constitutes
the description of the effects of UPTO and the two pathways through which these effects
are assumed to unfold: autonomy need satisfaction and detrimental social processes.
We moreover discuss the boundary conditions which facilitate or inhibit the successful
utilization of UPTO on individual, team, and organizational level. In reviewing the literature
from different ﬁelds and integrating existing theories, we arrive at a conceptual model
and ﬁve propositions, which can guide future research on UPTO. We conclude with a
discussion of the theoretical and societal implications of UPTO.
Keywords: self-determination theory, freedom, ﬂexibility, organizational policy, autonomy, social exchange
theory, holiday, leave
Recent headlines in major newspapers and online media illustrate that unlimited paid
time oﬀ policies are currently fashionable and widely discussed by HR professionals
around the globe (Reeves, 2021): “Unlimited holiday: The rise of leave without limits,”
“Unlimited vacation policy: Why employers should consider it,” “The ugly truth about
unlimited holidays,” “Why unlimited vacation days is a scam,” “Unlimited vacation
sounds amazing. It can burn workers in the end” and “Four lessons about unlimited
vacation.” These examples also showcase the paradoxical eﬀects which have been described
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de Bloom et al. Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies
in popular media. On the one hand, paid time oﬀ is considered
a key beneﬁt by employees (AICPA, 2018) and unlimited paid
time oﬀ policies (UPTO) are seen as a major perk which may
help in recruiting and retaining talented employees. On the other
hand, some early adopters reported that employees took less time
oﬀ than previously, presumably leading to higher burnout rates.
Accordingly, HR professionals proposed measures and boundary
conditions which may ensure that UPTO unfolds its assumed
beneﬁts while preventing any harmful side-eﬀects. However,
theoretical reasoning and empirical evidence is missing to show
and explain why these measures work. Therefore, we set out to
build a theoretical model on UPTO and its underlying processes
and formulated propositions to explain if and under which
conditions UPTO can beneﬁt or harm individual employees, the
team, and the company.
The COVID-19 pandemic and steep rise in remote work
sparked even more interest in UPTO and related ﬂexible
work arrangements with potentially wide-ranging implications
for performance management (e.g., Results Only Work
Environments). In this conceptual review, we will synthesize
the available theorizing and very scarce empirical evidence
to predict the eﬀects of UPTO on employee health, well-
being, motivation, and job performance. We developed a
conceptual model (Figure 1) that depicts how the eﬀects of
UPTO should exert their inﬂuence on employees from the
theoretical lens of self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci,
2000) and social exchange theory (Homans, 1958;Blau, 1964).
Speciﬁcally, we propose that UPTO can “unlock the best” and
engender feelings of autonomy which in turn lead to favorable
outcomes for employees and ultimately the organization.
At the same time, UPTO utilization is shaped by negative
social processes which may “unleash the beast” and result in
harmful outcomes for employees and the organization. Finally,
we propose boundary conditions of UPTO which facilitate
“unlocking the best” in employees and conditions that may
rather “unleash the beast” and harm individual workers, the
team, and the organization.
Our manuscript is divided into ﬁve sections. Firstly, we
deﬁne and place UPTO in a historical and international
context. Secondly, we focus on leave utilization as a key
construct which translates UPTO from a hypothetical option into
concrete action (i.e., taking leave). Thirdly, we describe the two
parallel processes which we termed “unlocking the best” and
“unleashing the beast” which are set in motion simultaneously
by making UPTO available. Fourthly, we delineate boundary
conditions on individual, team, and organizational level which
can aﬀect whether and how UPTO will be utilized and thus the
degree to which UPTO has beneﬁcial, neutral or even harmful
consequences. Fifthly, we discuss the theoretical and societal
implications of UPTO.
Work Intensiﬁcation, Flexibilization, and
Leisure Scarcity - A Need for Unlimited
Paid Time Off Policies?
How did UPTO become such a hot topic within the ﬁeld
of Human Resource Management? How did managers around
the world came to think that providing workers with an
unlimited amount of paid leave might be a good idea? Below,
we describe the historical and societal developments which
gave rise to UPTO.
A globalized 24/7 economy, automation, digitalization, and
technological advancements such as smart mobile Information
and Communication Technology devices which enable
employees to work anywhere and at any time have led to
structural changes in the way work is organized, carried out,
and experienced (Green, 2004;Kubicek and Korunka, 2017).
In today’s “Industry 4.0” (Schwab, 2017), most employees work
in the service industry or conduct knowledge work, requiring
them to engage in emotional labor, lifelong learning and eﬃcient
task and time management (Jarvis, 2007;Grandey and Melloy,
2017). For many workers, a primary work task is “non-routine”
problem solving and job performance is determined by the
employee’s ability to acquire, share, and utilize knowledge
(Reinhardt et al., 2011). The very concept of work has become
ﬂexible, accompanied by a change in the nature of employment
relationships such as a proliferation of temporary, project- and
platform-based work, and high levels of job insecurity (e.g.,
Burchel et al., 2002;Rofcanin and Anand, 2020). Spatial and
temporal boundaries between work and non-work domains
increasingly vanish, even more so after the COVID-19 pandemic
hit and people work from home for signiﬁcant shares of their
working time, while work pace and workload increase, leading
to the perception of accelerated working lives (Rosa, 2015;
Research on work trends in recent decades has shown that
Dumazedier’s (1967) vision of a “leisure society,” characterized
by abundant opportunities for relaxation, distraction from work,
and personal development, did not materialize hitherto for
most workers. In fact, his predicted decreases in individual
annual working time have only occurred in certain industries
such as manufacturing, whereas increases have occurred in
other sectors such as the service industry (for an insightful
historical overview of working time developments over the
past centuries see Wilensky, 1963). Job demands have even
intensiﬁed, and people perceive their working days nowadays as
intense (Boxall and Macky, 2014;Kubicek and Tement, 2016):
Time pressure is high and increasing, and many people feel
pushed to work faster and longer to meet deadlines (Baethge
et al., 2019). Concerning leisure time, we nowadays witness
polarization along demographic and socio-occupational lines.
For instance, time-use data from Canada and the Netherlands
shows that workload for paid and unpaid workers has risen
over the last two decades, while the amount of free time has
declined (Zuzanek et al., 1998). Along similar lines, results from
the latest European Working Conditions Survey show that 22%
of workers report that they work during their free time several
times a month to meet work demands (Parent-Thirion et al.,
2017) and for many workers, life is characterized by feelings
of “time famine” or “time squeeze” (Schor, 1991). Glorieux
et al. (2010) identiﬁed a signiﬁcant share of the workforce
as the “harried leisure class,” highly educated high-income
workers who constantly feel short in time. Accordingly, leisure is
increasingly seen as a scarce commodity that needs to be spent in
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de Bloom et al. Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies
FIGURE 1 | Conceptual model on effects of Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies (UPTO).
eﬃcient ways, resulting in phenomena such as “time deepening”
Furthermore, most modern work happens behind a
computer and output became less tangible than before.
After the decline of factories and the production of goods
in the western world, the need to coordinate the work
eﬀorts of large groups of workers via physical presence at
the same time and place has steadily decreased. Today,
many workers produce services and knowledge, making it
more diﬃcult for employers to exert control and closely
monitor employees’ work tasks and output. Consequently,
the responsibility for the strict regulation of work tasks
and working times has - at least partly - shifted back from
employers to employees.
These structural changes in working life and the changing
nature of work together with the perceived scarcity of
leisure time have led to a heightened need and desire
to manage one’s work and free time autonomously and
preferably to have more leisure. This trend is reﬂected
in (re)newed interest in alternative ways of working and
increased opportunities to take time oﬀ from work when
needed and desired.
As early as in the 1970s, many companies already
implemented (more or less) drastic changes toward ﬂexible
working times and/or shorter weekly working hours. Yet
research on these new types of working has remained scarce,
rendering inconclusive evidence (for a summary of early studies
see Bird, 2010). Rather than an actual absence of beneﬁcial
eﬀects, the ambiguity in these ﬁndings may be due to the great
variety of working time arrangements under investigation as well
as diﬀerences in the uptake of these arrangements in practice
(i.e., availability versus utilization). Conceptual frameworks
that can guide empirical investigations are urgently needed
to investigate the eﬀects of diﬀerent ﬂexible working time
arrangements in depth.
In this manuscript, we focus on UPTO as a concrete, speciﬁc,
and very timely example of a new working time arrangement.
UPTO is not only relevant because it ﬁts the Zeitgeist of modern
working life, but also because it is universally applicable to
all workers. This also distinguishes UPTO from other types
of ﬂexible work arrangements (i.e., ﬂexible working hours,
compressed work weeks, reduced work hours and/or ﬂexibility in
work location) which workers are allowed to but do not need to
use (for a review, see Shifrin and Michel, 2021). Whereas many
work-non-work policies are geared at speciﬁc workers or life
phases workers undergo, when UPTO is introduced, it substitutes
all previous, classical leave policies and is thus automatically
applicable to all workers.
The Rise of Unlimited Paid Time Off
In the next sections, we will deﬁne UPTO, provide a few concrete
examples of UPTO which have been introduced in practice
and then move on to brieﬂy describe the historical background
of leave legislation as well as an international comparison on
leave policies. We deem this overview key to understand the
importance of the societal, organizational, and individual context
which can aﬀect the utilization of leave.
We deﬁne UPTO as unlimited and sporadic paid time oﬀ
from work during which an employee can be away from work
and is not required to conduct any work-related tasks with
negotiable boundary conditions such as timing, length, and
requirements regarding coordination and performance. The term
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de Bloom et al. Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies
“sporadic” is important here, because it distinguishes UPTO from
structural adjustments of weekly working hours. Thus, people’s
contractually deﬁned weekly working hours remain unchanged,
just like the location for working, but employees are provided
with the opportunity to take time oﬀ from work whenever desired
while receiving their full wage. In principle, as indicated by the
label of being unlimited, there is no maximum number of days oﬀ
that can be taken. In practice, many companies still communicate
a maximum length of single leave episodes or state that leave
can only be taken if approved by the team, supervisor, and/or if
workload allows. Therefore, UPTO has often been criticized in
the media for not being truly unlimited or even being a scam.
As previously mentioned, UPTO has been widely discussed
as a ﬂexible working time arrangement among practitioners in
human resource management. In September 2020, an internet
search, for instance, yielded more than 88,700 hits for the search
term “unlimited paid time oﬀ” and 36,700 hits for “open paid
time oﬀ.” Many human resource managers came to view UPTO as
an attractive tool in attracting and managing modern knowledge
workers. In several industries, the whole concept of ﬁxed working
hours is frowned upon and seen as a relic from times when
performance could easily be measured in “minutes on task.”
Particularly in the tech industry, HR managers claim that creative
and cognitively demanding work requires new ways of working
and of measuring a person’s input and output (e.g., Jordan et al.,
2022). Therefore, UPTO and abandoning a ﬁxed number of
annual leave days resembles the Zeitgeist of modern work without
temporal or spatial boundaries. In addition, a shortage of workers
in the tech industry also forms a strong incentive to create
attractive workplaces for employees. In the “war of talent,” UPTO
has been portrayed as a means to attract and retain talented
employees. Consequently, numerous tech companies such as
Netﬂix, Hubspot, Dropbox, or Kronos have introduced UPTO.
As UPTO is not limited to speciﬁc types of jobs, companies in
other industries have followed soon. In the following section,
we provide a brief historical and international overview of
paid and unpaid leave which helps us to conceptualize and
Conceptualizing and Contextualizing
Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies
Work and leisure are often portrayed as opposites. In fact, work,
deﬁned as purposeful activities requiring mental and/or physical
exertion and carried out in the public domain in exchange
for wages (Wilson, 1996:23), can be seen as a precondition
for the existence of leisure. That is, work and leisure are
interdependent. But sometimes work and leisure are even diﬃcult
to distinguish, and research ﬁnds that people without work
do not perceive leisure as such (Wilson, 1996;Ciulla, 2000).
Accordingly, leisure scientists have long struggled to deﬁne
leisure, frequently resulting in somewhat arbitrary or circular
deﬁnitions of leisure as “time outside work” or simply as the
opposite of work (for a discussion of this challenge, see Beatty
and Torbert, 2003). Historically, leisure as a concept emerged
when the physical space of work moved outside people’s homes.
With rising levels of wealth, leisure was initially only a privilege
of the upper classes. With labor movements and unionization
of workers during industrialization came greater protection of
workers’ rights, including a reduction in weekly working hours.
The right to leisure which guarantees free time to everyone
was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
signed by 48 member states of the United Nations in 1948. In
modern times, boundaries between work and leisure have again
become blurred and life domains have merged. Due to modern
technology, most people carry their work “in their pocket”
around the clock, and work-related emails are the ﬁrst thing
people have a look at when opening their eyes in the morning.
Work and leisure are no longer seen as antithetical but ﬂow into
and complement each other in a dynamic relationship (Beatty
and Torbert, 2003). Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,
work and private life have become even more intermingled: A
great share of the working population works from home and
structural and physical boundaries between life domains have
vanished completely. Thus, legal deﬁnitions and legislation on
leisure time and rest periods have been implemented to delineate
work and leisure and protect worker’s health and well-being.
Across the world, work is regulated by laws which also regulate
the right to and timing of rest periods. Paid time oﬀ is deﬁned
as a pre-deﬁned number of days each year that an employee is
allowed to be away from work while still receiving full wage.
Legislation in the United States and the EU exempliﬁes well the
extreme diﬀerences which exist regarding annual paid time oﬀ
across the globe. Most industrialized states in the world can be
placed somewhere between these two extremes. In the United
States, workers do not have the legal right to paid annual leave,
treating leave as a perk rather than a worker right (Ray and
Schmitt, 2007). Each state in the United States has own labor laws,
and in most states, employers can decide whether they grant paid
leave to their employees or not. Consequently, 26% of Americans
have no access to paid leave (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018)
and the United States’ average is only eight vacation days per year.
Moreover, the right to leave is also unequally distributed among
United States workers favoring high wage, highly educated full-
time workers (Ray et al., 2013).
In the European Union, legal rights to at least 4 weeks of
paid vacation per year were established in 2003 (DIRECTIVE
2003/88/EC, 2003). EU countries must comply with this directive
and EU companies can only grant more, but never less than
4 weeks of leave. Compared to the United States, with no legal
statutory right to leave, European companies have a generous
leave policy in place (i.e., annual leave plus several special types of
leave for life events such as moving, sickness, or death of a family
member). Still, many Europeans save up leave days for personal
emergencies, leading to unused vacation days at the end of the
year (which can only be saved for a limited time), and suboptimal
use of the leave granted by the employer. This problem is likely
even more prominent in countries where employees do not have
the legal right on sick leave, but a ﬁxed amount of leave which
is to be used for vacations, sick leave, and personal emergencies.
Introducing UPTO might be seen as a solution to this problem,
because people no longer feel the need to save days for special
circumstances, leading to fewer accrued leave days at the end of
the year (which also constitutes a liability for companies), and
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better recovered employees. In addition, what should be kept in
mind is that while the implementation of UPTO is anchored on
an organizational level, the individual availability of UPTO can
be perceived very diﬀerently by employees. Therefore, we would
like to direct attention toward employees’ individually perceived
availability and accessibility of UPTO when the impact of UPTO
is assessed. That is, we suggest that part of how UPTO become
eﬀective is driven by the degree to which employees perceive
UPTO to be available to them, whether and how they make
use of the policy.
UNLIMITED PAID TIME OFF POLICIES
AND LEAVE UTILIZATION
In our conceptual model on UPTO, leave utilization is key in
translating UPTO into concrete actions (see Figure 1) - ﬁrst and
foremost regularly taking time oﬀ when desired and/or needed.
Research on working life policies has shown that accessibility
of policies is not the same as their utilization (Ford and Locke,
2002;Kirby and Krone, 2002). While the availability of UPTO
can indeed have beneﬁcial eﬀects on workers’ well-being by
providing employees with some “peace of mind” (i.e., the idea
that the policy would be available to them in times of need;
P1 in Figure 1), UPTO should moreover aﬀect well-being,
health, and performance once workers actually make use of
the policy and utilize the policy optimally. To illustrate this
argument with an example: Some human resource managers have
described in the media that workers actually took fewer holidays
after the introduction of UPTO. It is possible that workers
in these companies nevertheless report higher job satisfaction
than before they had UPTO, because they feel that they could
take time oﬀ whenever they like. However, if workers feel
happier but do not actually take leave, UPTO cannot lead to
profound or lasting beneﬁts. Therefore, it is also essential to
focus not only on the outcomes, but also carefully monitor and
understand the underlying processes which transform the policy
into potential beneﬁts for health, well-being, and performance.
Below, we present a short description of how leave utilization
might diﬀer between persons, and how these diﬀerences may
relate to diﬀerences in employees’ health, well-being, motivation,
Leave utilization can vary regarding the duration, frequency,
and timing of leave periods as well as regarding recovery
experiences during leave. Regarding duration and frequency of
leave, evidence from research on vacations suggests that longer
leaves do not necessarily have stronger or longer lasting eﬀects
on health and well-being (De Bloom et al., 2008). For instance,
both long weekends (4 days) and 5- or 10-day domestic holidays
can signiﬁcantly improve well-being (Kühnel and Sonnentag,
2011;De Bloom et al., 2012) and even the beneﬁcial eﬀects of 6-
month sabbaticals fade soon after returning to work (Davidson
et al., 2010). So, the frequency of leaves seems to be somewhat
more important than the duration of single leave episodes.
Still, both are key indicators of leave utilization. Accordingly,
we suggest using both the duration and frequency of taking
leave before the introduction of UPTO as a benchmark, as
these indicators provide important information on the impact
of UPTO. For example, if the total number of leave days taken
decreases, this may be an indication of employees experiencing
barriers to taking leave such as pressure to ﬁnish work tasks
colleagues are depending on (Barber et al., 2019). If under
UPTO the same number of free days is taken and greater
variance between people emerges in terms of frequency, this
could mean that people have increasingly adapted leave to
their personal needs.
Some implications regarding leave timing can be drawn from
research on breaks at work. For example, research on energy
management strategies suggests that breaks are particularly useful
in times of low energy and increased distress to prevent further
resource depletion (Fritz et al., 2011;Zacher et al., 2014). Thus,
especially in times of low energy resources, such as after a busy
period at work or after an important deadline, taking leave may
be beneﬁcial (e.g., Sonnentag, 2018).
Research on stress and recovery after work has provided
evidence on speciﬁc aspects in terms of experiences during leave
that are beneﬁcial for recovery. Four recovery experiences have
been shown to have beneﬁcial eﬀects for employees in terms
of well-being: detachment (mentally distancing oneself from
work), relaxation (low activation and increased positive aﬀect),
control (ability to choose between diﬀerent activity options),
and mastery (challenging experiences and the opportunity to
learn new things) (Sonnentag and Fritz, 2007, 2015). In the
DRAMMA model, which combines evidence from psychology
and leisure sciences (Newman et al., 2014), this list was
extended by two additional experiences: meaning (activities
that provide a sense of purpose) and aﬃliation (activities
that foster the feeling of relatedness to others). The empirical
evidence suggests that leave which fosters these experiences is
positively related to optimal functioning, i.e., higher vitality, life
satisfaction, subjective health, and lower depressive complaints,
need for recovery, tension, and strain (Sonnentag et al., 2017;
Kujanpää et al., 2020;Virtanen et al., 2020). We propose
that UPTO enables employees to take leave more regularly,
spontaneously, and for longer time periods, which should
stimulate beneﬁcial recovery experiences. On the basis of the
limited research to date, we propose that UPTO implemented
so that duration, frequency, and timing of leave periods
can be adjusted to individual needs should relate to positive
outcomes for employees.
UNLOCKING THE BEST AND
UNLEASHING THE BEAST
In the following sections, we will provide a theoretically and
empirically guided overview of the eﬀects of UPTO on employees’
health, well-being, work motivation, and performance. Figure 1
summarizes our conceptual model, and shows that we aim
to describe the eﬀects of UPTO as a function of releasing
the beneﬁcial potential of autonomy and setting in motion
social processes, which we refer to as “unlocking the best” and
“unleashing the beast,” grounded in self-determination theory
(Ryan and Deci, 2000) and social exchange theory (Homans,
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1958;Blau, 1964), respectively. Our model aligns with and can
explain “paradoxes” that regard autonomy (Mazmanian et al.,
2013) and ﬂexible work arrangements (Cañibano, 2019), showing
that well-intended policies can also result in (unintended)
negative outcomes for employee and employer.
Our model illustrates that with the introduction of UPTO,
two processes are likely to be evoked simultaneously. The ﬁrst
process, which we call unlocking the best, describes the most
likely intended beneﬁcial eﬀects of UPTO: Employees are given
autonomy over their leave, which should lead to beneﬁcial
outcomes. The second process, which we call unleashing the
beast, illustrates the paradoxical situation in which well-intended
policies may turn into unwanted outcomes. Employees are
granted autonomy over their leave, but detrimental social
processes are activated (such as normative pressure within a work
group, informal expectations about taking leave), which corrupt
the idea of autonomy and turn the freedom of taking leave into
an obligation of not taking (too much) leave.
The ﬁrst process, unlocking the best, is grounded in self-
determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000), which states that
autonomy is a key ingredient for a fulﬁlled life. Satisfaction
of people’s innate need for autonomy leads to higher work
engagement, better health, well-being, work motivation, and
performance. The second process - unleashing the beast - is
based on social exchange theory (Homans, 1958;Blau, 1964),
which highlights that under UPTO, taking leave constitutes a
process that is heavily shaped by social interactions. These social
processes can curtail the intended individual freedom into social
obligations associated with an atmosphere of guilt, excessive
responsibility for organizational or team goals and consequently
harmful eﬀects for employees, such as poorer health, well-being,
work motivation, and performance. It is important to note that
we propose that both processes are at play simultaneously, and
that individual-level, team-level, and organizational factors will
determine which process will prevail (see boundary conditions
We propose that the processes we term “unlocking the
best” and “unleashing the beast” are partly mediated by leave
utilization. Regarding the assumed positive pathway, availability
of UPTO may lead to beneﬁcial outcomes directly (P1) and by
enabling workers to adjust their leave utilization to their personal
needs which in turn liberates psychological resources and positive
emotions, resulting in greater well-being and energetic resources
(P2). On the other hand, detrimental social processes may restrict
leave utilization, and, for instance, inhibit optimal timing of leave
by putting teams’ work goals before individuals’ recovery goals.
This can drain people’s energetic resources and in the long-
term lead to feelings of exhaustion (P3). We will describe these
processes in greater detail below.
In the outcome part of our conceptual model on the
right, we describe potential outcomes of availability of UPTO.
Positive eﬀects resulting from UPTO are reﬂected in a
balance between individual and organizational needs such as
higher job satisfaction, well-being, and work engagement, a
better work-non-work balance, as well as more organizational
citizenship behaviors. Negative eﬀects resulting from UPTO are
reﬂected in an imbalance between individual and organizational
needs, which is likely to result in short-term higher work
engagement and job satisfaction but also in long working
hours, more working during leisure time, rumination about
work after oﬃce hours, and higher work-non-work conﬂicts.
In the long term, negative eﬀects may prevail as temporary
strain reactions cannot be reversed and people must perform
while still feeling tired (Meijman and Mulder, 1998). This
process further drains emotional and cognitive resources and
depletes personal energy, ultimately leading to serious threats
to well-being, health problems such as burnout, sleeping
problems, anxiety, or depression. In the next section, we
describe both processes of our conceptual model in detail
and present preliminary ﬁndings from research supporting
Unlocking the Best
Autonomy regarding leave is seen as a key element of healthy
work and attractive jobs. In representative surveys across
industrialized nations, shorter working hours and extended
amounts of free time are increasingly seen as desirable. When
asked whether employees would prefer higher salaries or
more vacation days, the majority of workers vote for more
leisure (e.g., AICPA, 2018;Ver.di, 2019), mirroring the shift in
priorities from consumption of physical goods toward services
and experiences (Pine and Gilmore, 1998). Therefore, UPTO
enabling employees to take agency over their work time, is also
often communicated as an asset to attract and retain talented
employees (Hill et al., 2008).
Job autonomy, deﬁned as “the degree to which the job
provides substantial freedom, independence, and discretion to
the employee in scheduling the work and in determining the
procedures to be used in carrying it out” (Hackman and Oldham,
1976: 162), is considered the core mechanism which can bring
about the positive eﬀects of UPTO. Job autonomy has been
shown to be an essential ingredient for work-related well-being
and performance. It helps employees to achieve goals at work,
and can facilitate personal growth (e.g., Hackman and Oldham,
1976;Spector, 1986). Indeed, major theories in the ﬁeld of work
psychology have something to say about autonomy, and also
outside the work context, autonomy is seen as a basic human need
and its satisfaction as a key mechanism helping people to thrive
and ﬂourish in life (Deci and Ryan, 2008). Thus, the relationship
between job autonomy and well-being of employees is explained
by the satisfaction of autonomy as a basic human need.
In abandoning the use of a ﬁxed amount of leave, companies
aim to establish a culture of psychological ownership. Just like
self-employed entrepreneurs, employees are considered capable
of managing their work tasks and striking an optimal balance
between the needs of the company and their personal needs.
UPTO may signal trust of the company in employees, may
empower them, reaﬃrm their status and sense of self as
accomplished professionals trusted to make responsible use of
UPTO. This could beneﬁt both the employees and the company.
Studies have indeed shown that providing employees with
higher levels of autonomy makes them feel accountable and
more committed to their work (e.g., Spector, 1986). This in
turn positively aﬀects organizational outcomes such as greater
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ﬁnancial returns, customer satisfaction, productivity, lower
employee turnover, and fewer accidents (Harter et al., 2002). In
conclusion, we expect that UPTO leads to beneﬁts for employees
(e.g., greater well-being, work engagement), because it fosters
satisfaction of autonomy as a basic human need, as proposed in
self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2008). This leads to
our ﬁrst proposition:
•P1: Availability of UPTO provides the satisfaction of autonomy
as a basic human need and therefore can directly lead to
beneﬁts for employees such as greater well-being and work
Furthermore, we assume that the relationship between
availability of UPTO and beneﬁcial outcomes is also partly
mediated by leave utilization. Control over the timing and
duration of leave enables employees to align their work better
with their personal needs and experience a better balance
between work and non-work life. According to recovery research,
job control regarding the timing of recovery episodes is
important for optimal well-being (Sonnentag et al., 2017).
As the job demands people experience vary across time,
depending on the job tasks they must perform, their need for
recovery also varies (Sonnentag and Zijlstra, 2006). Moreover,
individual characteristics (e.g., stress resilience, personality traits
such as neuroticism, hardiness, and resilience) may determine
employees’ optimal workload and need for recovery (Sonnentag
et al., 2010;Kraaijeveld et al., 2014). Employers introducing
UPTO assume that employees can recognize if and when
they need to recover and act accordingly by taking time
oﬀ. UPTO could foster the optimal timing and duration of
taking leave based on personal preferences, work characteristics,
and person characteristics. For example, during the current
COVID-19 pandemic UPTO could help employees by allowing
them to take leave to adjust to burdens associated with the
pandemic (e.g., childcare, homeschooling). Enabling people to
take time oﬀ from work whenever needed may provide them
with a means to optimize their personally preferred patterns of
eﬀort and recovery.
Leave from work, as a prolonged episode of recovery
from work and mental disengagement from work, enables
employees’ psychobiological systems to return to baseline levels
and reestablish full working capacities and well-being (Meijman
and Mulder, 1998;Sonnentag and Fritz, 2015). Numerous
empirical studies in occupational health psychology have indeed
shown that recovered workers are healthier, more committed
to their work, and perform better (e.g., De Bloom et al.,
2008;Binnewies et al., 2010;Kühnel et al., 2017). Autonomy
in taking leave according to one’s personal needs might also
foster the leave experiences of psychological detachment and
control. For example, adjusting the start of a vacation to an
unexpected pressing deadline reduces the number of unﬁnished
tasks when ﬁnally start their vacation. Leaving behind a “clean
desk” is beneﬁcial in terms of mentally distancing oneself
from work (Syrek et al., 2017), and reduces work-related
rumination. Additionally, autonomy to take leave when desired
heightens control over free time and vacation activities. For
instance, UPTO may help employees to take leave when the
weather is nice or an important event takes place and supports
engagement in personally meaningful hobbies (e.g., sailing or
running a Marathon). Thus, UPTO oﬀers higher control in
the choice of activities during leave days and thereby improves
the quality of leave experiences. This leads to our second
•P2: Beneﬁcial outcomes of UPTO are partly explained by
optimal utilization of leave. Speciﬁcally, we propose that
availability of UPTO enables employees to adjust their leave
to their personal needs, resulting in optimal duration, timing,
and frequency of leave days as well as better leave experiences.
This in turn leads to beneﬁcial well-being and performance
Unleashing the Beast
Contrary to the proposed direct link between availability of
UPTO and beneﬁcial outcomes, we do not propose a direct
link between availability of UPTO and negative outcomes.
That is, we consider it unlikely that the mere availability of
UPTO can deteriorate employee well-being or performance. Even
though there is some research showing that work-family policies
can be perceived unfair by people who do not have children
and therefore do not make use of certain policies (called the
“family-friendly backlash;” Parker and Allen, 2001), UPTO is
not restricted, speciﬁcally tailored to or particularly relevant to
certain groups of workers. Instead, we assume that potential
negative eﬀects of UPTO unfold via suboptimal leave utilization.
We explain this process via social exchange theory (Homans,
Following social exchange theory (Homans, 1958;Blau,
1964), UPTO can be seen as an inducement of the company
which requires a contribution to the company from the
employees’ side, i.e., UPTO may create a social obligation
toward the employer. Taking advantage of UPTO may thus
lead to a feeling of obligation or even guilt toward the
employer. In return for UPTO and the freedom it supposedly
provides, the organization can expect the employee to be an
ideal worker (Putnam et al., 2014). Following Kelliher and
Anderson’s (2010) and Cañibano’s (2019) argumentation, we
suggest that UPTO becomes a part of a psychological contract
between the employees and the employer, and entails certain
tacit expectations regarding the appropriate leave behavior
under UPTO. People’s vision of an ideal worker is thereby
shaped by their professional and workplace norms (Wieland,
2010), and empirical evidence suggests that this often means
working overtime and making sacriﬁces for the employer.
For instance, research on ﬂexible work arrangements and
technology which enables workers to work more ﬂexibly, has
shown that people often tend to put in more hours, experience
more conﬂicts between work and private life (Peters et al.,
2009), and perceive work as intensiﬁed (Kelliher and Anderson,
2010;Mazmanian et al., 2013). Individuals may internalize
organizational goals, which promotes overcommitment or self-
endangering behaviors (Peters, 2001;Deci et al., 2016) and
that limit employees’ leisure time at the expense of the
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company. According to Deci et al. (2016) these behaviors include
prolonging working hours, intensifying working hours, using
substances for recuperation, taking stimulants, working despite
illness, lowering the quality of work, and failing to observe
safety standards. These behaviors tend to occur due to high
work demands and interestingly are particularly common in
workplaces with high levels of autonomy (Baeriswyl et al., 2014).
Self-endangering work behaviors also go hand in hand with
health problems seriously impaired recovery from work-related
stress (Deci et al., 2016).
In the absence of formal rules on leave and without a
speciﬁcation of an exact number of leave days per year, workers
may be inclined to exercise greater levels of control over others,
leading to “concertive control” (Barker, 1993;Ter Hoeven et al.,
2017). Concertive control is characterized by strong identiﬁcation
with the team and/or the organization, strict informal rules and
norms within teams, and punishment and reward exercised by
the team. For instance, research has shown that self-managing
teams which are granted more autonomy increase their control
over individual team members (Barley and Kunda, 1992;Ezzamel
and Willmott, 1998;Sewell, 1998). An endless number of vacation
days means that employees have no guidance on how much
leave is appropriate. When no formal rules exist, employees will
look for informal rules communicated by their supervisor or
team members. Normative pressures within teams can induce
an employee to conform to the team’s values and courses of
action. Consequently, employees are likely to imitate their peers’
behaviors, because these behaviors signal the norms deemed
appropriate (Gino et al., 2009). Descriptive norms (what is
actually happening at the workplace) have a stronger eﬀect on
behavior than injunctive norms (what ought to be happening
at the workplace), even when the descriptive norm does not
align with the injunctive norm (Kallgren et al., 2000). In popular
media, this process has been described and companies with a “No
vacation policy” have been criticized for disregarding this eﬀect.
Under UPTO, employees can take as much time oﬀ as they wish
(injunctive norm), but the number of days that will ultimately
be taken depends on what other team members do (descriptive
norm). Depending on the company culture, the team culture and
the personality of the supervisor, wide diﬀerences between people
and teams may emerge in terms of the utilization of UPTO. This
could contribute to a work environment where the utilization of
UPTO is discouraged (see also McDonald et al., 2005).
In a similar line of argumentation, it could be argued that
leave is owned by an individual worker under standard (non-
unlimited) leave policies. In most companies, additional leave
hours can be bought, and excess leave hours can be exchanged
for extra salary. Workers leaving an organization usually need
to be paid out all unused leave hours. But under UPTO, leave
becomes a shared good. If one worker takes more leave, this
may imply less leave for another. Under UPTO, a worker can no
longer compensate the company and/or their team for additional
leave taken by giving up some salary. This means that they are
at the mercy of their colleagues and supervisors for granting
them additional free time at the expense of the group. Under
UPTO, leave changes from an individual trading good into a
Finally, we would like to zoom in on the paradoxical role
of autonomy. In her essay on what she calls the “performance
society,” Lynn Berger (2020) refers to the downside of autonomy
as the “perversion of freedom.” Referring to philosopher Han’s
(2015) essay on the “burnout society,” Berger states that the
shift from external control of work through an employer to the
employee leads to an ever-increasing need for self-optimization.
External prohibition, command, and regulation at work are
increasingly replaced by internal initiative, motivation, and self-
discipline. As this discipline comes from the inside rather than
from an external force, resistance is impossible, resulting in self-
exploitation. This exploitation of the self is more eﬃcient than
exploitation by an external force because it is actually perceived
as freedom. The exploiting and exploited become one.
Regarding leave utilization these detrimental social processes
imply that fewer vacation days may be taken than under policies
with a ﬁxed number of vacation days per year. Several companies
which had introduced UPTO canceled the policies because they
could indeed see this happening (e.g., Gateley, 2018;Sweeney,
2019). This phenomenon bears a strong resemblance to what
has been described as “leavism.” Leavism refers to employees’
tendency to take leave when they are actually sick or unable
to complete their work in time (Hesketh and Cooper, 2014).
Under UPTO, some employees may take leave, but actually
just work from home to save commuting time, run errands
or take care of family obligations during the working day.
A change toward mainly shorter leaves and a decrease of longer
leaves would be indicative of people not feeling free to make
optimal use of UPTO.
Interestingly, evidence from breaks at work shows that
employees have diﬃculties in recognizing their need for recovery
and tend not to take breaks if they have the autonomy over
taking breaks (Henning et al., 1989). Sonnentag (2018) coined
the term “recovery paradox” to describe the empirical ﬁnding
that recovery processes are particularly impaired when they are
needed most, that is, when employees face high job stressors.
Under UPTO, employees may similarly fail to initiate leave days
when their self-regulatory resources diminish, and initial signs
of distress occur. This process could be further ampliﬁed by
organizational structures that couple high autonomy with high
work demands and responsibility to meet these demands.
Teams may also struggle to jointly decide who is granted
what amount of leave. Team members are often dependent on
each other’s work and a day oﬀ for one team member can mean
additional work for another. Negotiating an optimal balance
between team members can be tough and carry the potential for
conﬂict. Even when teams may jointly arrive at an agreement on
how many days oﬀ each employee is granted, some employees
may need more days due to personal circumstances or desires
(e.g., family emergencies, need for recovery, traveling the world).
It may be challenging to argue for this within a team while
keeping a fair distribution of leave among team members, i.e.,
the same amount of leave for all. To be granted permission to
get more days oﬀ than their team members, employees may feel
forced to disclose information about their personal circumstances
requiring them to take time oﬀ. Leave turns from a right into a
dispensation from the company, controlled by the team and/or
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supervisor. This means, compared to ﬁxed leave policies, under
UPTO, employees may be controlled more by workplace norms,
and their own view of the ideal worker which aﬀects leave
utilization and the content of leave experiences. Being granted
leave by the team may be associated with feelings of guilt
for leaving the colleagues to deal with stressful situations or
feeling obliged to make up for taking leave when back at the
workplace. Thus, UPTO can lead to ruminating or worrying
about work during the vacation and reduce mental detachment.
Additionally, leave may only be taken if the moment is right for
the team, which reduces the options regarding leave activities
(which may depend on the time of the year, and therefore
reduces control over leave activities). This leads to our third
•P3: Negative outcomes under UPTO are partly explained by
constrained utilization of leave. Speciﬁcally, we suggest that
detrimental social processes hinder employees from adjusting
leave to their personal needs resulting in not recognizing
or ignoring the need to take a leave and suboptimal leave
duration, frequency, timing, and leave experiences.
BOUNDARY CONDITIONS THAT MAY
SHAPE THE EFFECTS OF UNLIMITED
PAID TIME OFF POLICIES
Below, we provide an overview of boundary conditions which
support or hinder optimal utilization of UPTO and boundary
conditions which aﬀect the pathway from leave utilization
to outcomes. We emphasize that these factors merely serve
as examples in the broad spectrum of potentially relevant
We will discuss three individual factors that aﬀect whether and
how leave is utilized and translated into beneﬁcial outcomes.
Firstly, studies show that women generally utilize ﬂexible work
policies and vacation leave more intensely than men (Maume,
2006). According to Maume (2006), this diﬀerence is partly
explained by traditional expressions of work-family priorities in
which men take fewer leaves because they are more concerned
about job security and coordination issues at work whereas
women are more concerned about their families. Rather than a
true gender eﬀect, the diﬀerences found may thus be explained by
work centrality. Work centrality refers to the importance a person
assigns to working in comparison to other life domains such as
leisure, family or religion (Paullay et al., 1994). People who view
work as central to their identity are likely to utilize leave to a
smaller extent (i.e., shorter and less frequent leaves) than people
who have a more balanced identity, including other life domains
and roles as well.
Secondly, we propose that people with a high need for
segmentation between life domains make relatively little use of
ﬂexibility in time or place compared to people with a low need
for segmentation (Shockley and Allen, 2010). We propose that
people with a high (vs. low) need for segmentation may use
UPTO to the same extent, but for diﬀerent purposes and thus
with diﬀerent consequences. People with a strong segmentation
preference may more likely use UPTO as a recovery opportunity,
because they have strong boundaries between work and non-
work domains. These well-established boundaries ensure that
when they take leave, they will not engage in work-related
activities during their non-work time. People with a low need
for segmentation, however, are at greater risk of using UPTO to
engage in what we have introduced as “leavism” above. They will
more likely continue to work during their leave, and they may
even take leave in times of high workload just to tend to their
work from home and schedule their time more eﬃciently (e.g.,
by saving travel time).
Thirdly, personality traits such as neuroticism or openness
may inﬂuence both an employee’s need for recovery from job
stress and their desire to travel to discover new places and
meet new people, respectively, and thus whether available UPTO
will be utilized. Recovery-related self-eﬃcacy may determine
whether workers beneﬁt from taking time oﬀ. Recovery-related
self-eﬃcacy refers to “an individual’s expectation of being able
to beneﬁt from recovery time and recovery opportunities”
(Sonnentag and Kruel, 2006: 202). It is an important predictor of
recovery from job stress (e.g., Park and Lee, 2015;Park and Kim,
2019). Accordingly, we propose that people who lack recovery-
related self-eﬃcacy will less likely and less extensively make use
of UPTO. In addition, employees with higher recovery-related
self-eﬃcacy may beneﬁt more from taking leave than people with
lower recovery-related self-eﬃcacy.
Group level processes play an important role in UPTO utilization.
Decisions on leave are often shifted from supervisors to the
team level. This means, depending on the workload, personal
preferences, and considerations of fairness, teams might decide
jointly who can take time oﬀ from work, when, and for how
long. Some teams may establish rules in which the whole team
needs to approve the plans of each team member whereas other
teams shift this responsibility to their team leader. Factors such
as team maturity (i.e., how long does a team work together),
diversity and location (i.e., remote or on-site) may either simplify
or complicate the process of establishing norms within a team
and having constructive discussions on how to organize leave-
taking within a team.
While UPTO might at ﬁrst sight seem more suitable for
knowledge workers, there are several companies around the
world that have introduced UPTO even though their workers’
performance and output depends on physical presence. For
instance, to cure patients or ensure satisﬁed call center clients,
a team needs to collaborate to achieve their joint goal(s).
Occupation rate (i.e., services are provided to clients/patients
around the clock) is key in this endeavor. This means that
employees need to negotiate the timing and duration of their
leave with their colleagues. This is actually true for any kind
of leave policy. Consequently, an employee can only take oﬀ
if another employee covers their shift. As workers are more
dependent on each other to achieve their work goals and perform
well, the social exchange process is key.
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Overall, such processes can potentially result in conﬂicts
within the team and between the team and the supervisor.
Technical tools and expertise that would help teams to reliably
predict workload and occupation rates required to handle the
workload on speciﬁc days or times of the year might be beneﬁcial
in order to prevent team conﬂicts under UPTO.
An important factor in determining whether individual
employees can take leave relates to structural interdependence.
According to Courtright et al. (2015), interdependence includes
both task and outcome interdependence, meaning that team
members depend on one another for access to critical resources
and coordinated action in order to establish well-functioning
workﬂows. Moreover, performance expectations, goals, feedback,
and rewards are often on the team level. Consequently,
individual team members may feel high levels of responsibility
in making sure that their team achieves common goals and
completes projects in time. This may restrict the freedom of
individual team members to take leave and withdraw temporarily
from investing in the team’s shared goals. The stronger the
interdependence of a team, the lower utilization of leave
is expected to be.
A related construct with similar eﬀects is team identity. Team
identity is deﬁned as a bond (personal, cognitive, emotional,
and behavioral) between an individual and their team (Henry
et al., 1999) and represents the extent to which an individual
perceives oneness with their team (Ashforth and Mael, 1989).
Research has shown that people with a strong team identity
are inclined to follow and invoke team norms (Somech et al.,
2009). It is likely that people who identify strongly with their
team and the team’s shared goals will be less inclined to utilize
UPTO for their personal beneﬁt as this may harm the team’s
goals of achieving certain work tasks within a speciﬁc time
frame. The opposite eﬀect may occur in teams with a strong
“recovery culture” (Sonnentag et al., 2021), i.e., teams with
a shared awareness that recovery is important and valuable.
These teams may encourage and enable each other to take leave
Organizational factors also aﬀect how employees utilize UPTO.
We will describe three important factors: organizational culture,
leadership, and workload. Firstly, based on Cameron and Quinn’s
(2006) framework, a clan culture deﬁned as an environment
promoting caring for the individual worker and positive
relationships, can be expected to foster optimal leave utilization
compared to a market culture, which stimulates within-group
competition rather than cooperation. Empirical support of this
argument has been reported by Timms et al. (2015) who have
demonstrated that a non-supportive organizational culture (i.e.,
expectations that employees work long hours and that careers
will be negatively impacted if employees make use of ﬂexible
work arrangements) is related to non-use of ﬂexible work
arrangements. Similarly, Peetz and Allan (2005) found that
ﬂextime can lead to a long hour working culture.
Secondly, leadership plays a crucial role in discouraging
or encouraging utilization of UPTO, either by directly
communicating expectations or by acting as role models.
We expect that both empowering and transformational
leadership which provide subordinates with individualized
consideration and intellectual stimulation support subordinates
in terms of leave utilization, whereas transactional leadership
focusing on compliance by subordinates through both rewards
and punishments may create an environment that restrict that
subordinates’ use UPTO according to their personal needs.
Research has shown that a market culture and transactional
leadership are associated with “obsessive passion,” deﬁned as a
rigid persistence in work activities and an uncontrollable urge
to work hard, resulting in long working hours and conﬂicts
in other life domains (Vallerand, 2010). This closely resembles
what we have described as self-endangering work behaviors
Research has also shown that workers tend to recognize their
supervisors’ orientation toward health (Franke et al., 2014) and,
for example, imitate their supervisors’ behaviors in terms of
segmentation between life domains (Koch and Binnewies, 2015).
Communication by supervisors about policies shapes what Ter
Hoeven et al. (2017) refer to as “acquired rules.” These rules are
deﬁned as beliefs which guide employees’ decisions regarding the
use or non-use of work–life policies. That means, supervisors
serve as important role models which will shape the utilization
of UPTO in their subordinates.
Thirdly, high workload, urgency and frequent, tight deadlines
are very decisive as to if and how UPTOs are used. Research
has also shown that individuals with longer tenure in the
organization, supervisory responsibilities, and with coworkers
who utilize ﬂexible work are more likely to utilize ﬂexible
work policies than are workers without tenure, supervisory
responsibilities, and who do not perceive their workgroup as
using the newly acquired ﬂexibility (Lambert et al., 2008).
This suggests that workers need to feel secure and perceive
the organizational culture as being supportive of ﬂexible
work policies in order to actually make use of such policies.
Transparency about rules within the company can guide
employees in establishing the right amount of leave for them.
Fourthly, another important element on the organizational
level is a system to monitor leave. While it may seem tempting
for companies to abandon all rules and simplify leave registration,
a registry is essential to monitor and intervene, particularly
if employees take too little leave. In the European context, it
is also important to note that the law requires a minimum
number of leave days to be taken every year. Therefore,
companies have the legal duty to record leave and prove that
they adhere to the legal guidelines. Moreover, such a registration
system can also help teams to coordinate their work tasks and
This argumentation for individual, team-level, and
organizational factors above leads to the following propositions:
•P4: Individual, team-level, and organizational factors aﬀect
whether and how UPTO is utilized. For example, on
individual-level, employees with high work centrality may take
fewer leave days than employees with a lower work centrality.
On team level, teams with a supportive recovery culture may
stimulate their team members to take more regular/longer
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leave. On organizational level, software systems which help
workers to predict workload and required occupation rates
on the work ﬂoor can help workers to coordinate their leave
periods and take time oﬀ when needed and possible.
•P5: Individual, team-level, and organizational factors aﬀect
the relationship between leave utilization and outcomes. For
example, on individual level, employees with a high recovery-
related self-eﬃcacy may beneﬁt more from taking leave
than employees with lower recovery-related self-eﬃcacy. On
team level, team members with high interdependency may
shame colleagues for taking leave during a busy period at
work, thereby oﬀsetting the beneﬁcial eﬀects of leave taking.
On organizational level, high workload, and tight deadlines
right after holiday periods may prevent beneﬁcial vacation
eﬀects to translate into lasting well-being and performance
In this conceptual review, we focus on the newly emerging HR
policy of UPTO. Building on and extending earlier work on the
paradox of autonomy (Mazmanian et al., 2013) and ﬂexible work
(Cañibano, 2019) and integrating self-determination and social
exchange theory, we have developed a conceptual model and ﬁve
propositions on the eﬀects of UPTO leading to beneﬁts or threats
for worker’s well-being, health, and performance. We propose
the eﬀect of availability of UPTO unfolds via two simultaneously
occurring processes which either release the beneﬁts of autonomy
resulting in higher well-being, motivation, and performance, or
trigger detrimental social process which limit leave utilization
and with negative long-term consequences for individuals,
teams, and the organization. Central in our model is the
utilization of UPTO which translates sheer availability of UPTO
into consequences. Finally, we propose that several boundary
conditions at individual, team, and organizational level are at
play that either foster or inhibit the optimal utilization of leave
in terms of leave frequency, duration, timing, and experiences,
and that shape whether workers beneﬁt from utilization of leave.
In developing our model, we draw on earlier research ﬁndings on
autonomy and ﬂexible work scattered across various disciplines
and integrate them in a coherent framework with the help of
two major theories: self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci,
2000) and social exchange theory (Homans, 1958;Blau, 1964).
Below, we elaborate on the theoretical implications of our work
and reﬂect on the wider societal implications of UPTO.
Theoretical Implications: Potential
Extension of Motivation Theories
Self-determination theory forms one of the two core elements
of our model, suggesting that UPTO enables employees to
satisfy their need for autonomy which in turn should directly
lead to optimal functioning. However, self-determination as
a theory focuses on the individual worker and cannot fully
explain the “unleashing the beast” part of our model, which
relates to social exchange theories. More importantly, we believe
that self-determination theory does not suﬃciently capture
situations in which people are both intrinsically motivated (i.e.,
voluntarily participate in work activities out of enjoyment),
and work due to external pressures such as described in the
“unleashing the beast” part of our model. In line with Berger’s
reasoning on the “perversion of freedom,” internalized pressures
for self-optimization and self-exploitation, and the “emergent
theory of neoclassical calling” (Bunderson and Thompson,
2009), we speculate that self-determination theory may be
further developed to include what we would call “escalated
motivation.” Escalated motivation could account for the short-
term adaptive (e.g., “walking the extra mile” for the company,
high work engagement) and long-term non-adaptive outcomes of
autonomy (e.g., long working hours, burnout) and may represent
a unique combination of intrinsic motivation and introjected
regulation. We think that such an adaptation would ﬁt the
context of modern working life in which external control by
the organization is often replaced by internal control. Building
on Michel Foucault’s analyses of neoliberalism, Casalini (2019)
describes basically the same phenomenon of self-exploitation
when stating “The neoliberal individual is invited to think of
himself or herself as free, but in fact is dependent on the
imperatives of the neoliberal social environment” (p. 136). In
combination with the increasing pressure to enjoy work and
experience one’s job as meaningful (Berkelaar and Buzzanell,
2014;Graeber, 2018), this new type of “escalated motivation”
may also explain rising levels of burnout (Aumayr-Pintar et al.,
2018;Gallup, 2019). Thus, a combined consideration of the
beneﬁts of autonomy and possible corruptions of these eﬀects
due to negative interfering social processes, might provide a
theoretical lens that explains paradoxical eﬀects of ﬂexible work
arrangements in modern working environments.
Regarding the detrimental social process of UPTO, we have
mainly focused on situations in which employees are too
committed to the organization and invest (too) much eﬀort in
their work. But in fact, the opposite can happen, too. That is, if
an employee feels exploited by the organization, they may reduce
their input to the organization. As an example, an employee may
make more use of UPTO after having learned that they did not
get the expected promotion and associated pay rise. This may re-
establish a perceived eﬀort-reward imbalance, but obviously has
direct harmful consequences for the organization (Siegrist, 2002;
Van Vegchel et al., 2005). It is also interesting to note that this
abuse of UPTO is an often-raised fear in the media.1And who
would keep working anyways if you do not need to, but could
be on holidays year-round? This question taps into our ideas on
human nature and the nature of work. And there is an answer
derived from studies on the universal basic income and research
on hypothetical and actual lottery winners. These studies show
that around two-thirds of people would keep working even if they
would not need a salary to make a living (for an overview and
summary of these studies, see Hüﬀmeier and Zacher, 2021).
Relatedly, we have not considered positive social exchange
processes in our model. However, it is also possible that
availability of UPTO leads team members to feel trust and
employees-abuse- your-unlimited- vacation-policy
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de Bloom et al. Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies
gratitude toward each other, which in turn may lead to beneﬁcial
team-level outcomes such as a positive team climate. Accordingly,
social processes may also complement the “unlocking the best”
process occurring at the individual level.
Societal Implications: Unlimited Paid
Time Off as a Modern Form of
Unlimited paid time oﬀ in its most liberal form means complete
freedom to take time oﬀ whenever desired. Employees could
drastically reduce their weekly working hours or decide to
work only a couple of weeks per month or a few months per
year. As long as their work gets done, employers should in
principle accept this utilization of UPTO. When UPTO is taken
to this extreme (which in practice rarely happens), it implies
maximum ﬂexibilization of working times. In fact, it would
mean totally abandoning ﬁxed working times. There has been
already heightened interest in ﬂexible working arrangements
regarding when and where work is done (e.g., Putnam et al.,
2014;Rofcanin and Anand, 2020). UPTO implies that employees
could even decide if they work at all. Consequently, employers
would need to implement management practices to ensure
that the job gets done at the point in time they want it
done. Most of the companies that have implemented UPTO
thus far do indeed have management systems in place which
are clearly based on output. That is, these companies often
have HR practices such as management by objectives with
clearly formulated organizational goals and systems in which
supervisor and employee jointly set measurable objectives,
progress toward these objectives is closely monitored, and
attainment of the objectives within a pre-set time frame is
evaluated and rewarded.
We assert that working under UPTO in this extreme (and
hypothetical form) may be comparable to piecework in which
employees get paid a ﬁxed piece rate for an action performed or
product completed, irrespective of the time they worked on it.
In modern work, the “piece” would be attaining a pre-deﬁned
objective such as a project completed, a product delivered,
or a deal signed with a new client. If working hours and
physical presence at the workplace no longer serve as a criterion
for productivity, employment contracts may drastically change
or may become obsolete. Consequently, work arrangements
may increasingly become non-standard “gigs” (Gandini, 2018).
Under UPTO, employees may increasingly become or made into
entrepreneurs or freelancers.
Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies as a
Process Evolving and Changing Over
Last but not least, we would like to mention that the
introduction of new HR policies is a dynamic process
unfolding across various levels within the organization. For
instance, when investigating UPTO, it would be important to
compare employees with and without UPTO (between-person
comparison) and employees before and after UPTO introduction
(within-person comparison). Between persons, higher variance in
leave duration and frequency in the group with UPTO compared
to a group with regular leave schemes would be indicative of
higher autonomy under UPTO and the path of “unlocking the
best” in our model. Comparing the time before and after UPTO
introduction in the same persons, stability in the number of leave
days taken and increasing variance in leave frequency would
suggest that UPTO helps employees to adjust their leave to
individual needs and preferences.
Following Van Mierlo et al. (2018), the introduction of
a new HRM policy like UPTO can be seen as a process
that evolves and changes over time. Newly introduced HRM
practices change the behavior of various actors at the workplace.
This in turn aﬀects how these practices play out and aﬀect
these diﬀerent actors. Subsequently, this may lead policymakers
and HRM managers to adapt the rules or introduce new
policies and the process starts over again. This means that
UPTO might be best represented and investigated within a
multilevel framework. For instance, it is likely that individual-
level relationships (e.g., positive relationship between autonomy
and beneﬁts of UPTO) are dependent both on team-level
constructs (e.g., pressure to succumb to team norms) and
individual-level constructs (e.g., being jealous of other team
members’ leave taking). UPTO is also expected to evolve over
time when the context changes and employees experiment
with UPTO, experience how it inﬂuences their well-being, job
performance, and private lives and adapt the way they utilize it.
The ongoing pandemic and rise in telework may further speed up
the process of companies introducing ﬂexible work policies and
potentially also UPTO.
When work and free time become increasingly intertwined,
leisure may become work and work may become leisure. For
instance, leisure has been deﬁned as an “experiential quality
of one’s time when one engages voluntarily and intentionally
in awareness-expanding inquiry” (Beatty and Torbert, 2003:
239). In business life, countless variations exist of the saying
that you will not work a day in your life if you choose a job
you love. Both views fall short of capturing the essence of the
struggle modern workers undergo. While the ﬁrst view seems to
suggest that work as counterpart to leisure is characterized by
activities which are neither voluntary nor enjoyable, the second
disregards work which is undertaken to earn a living rather than
for fun or to achieve a greater purpose in life. The upcoming
years will show how employers and employees will negotiate,
arrange and manage work and non-work life domains and how
new trends in work arrangements such as UPTO and telework
will aﬀect the process of striking a balance between closely
interconnected life domains.
In this conceptual review, we studied UPTO as an example
of ﬂexible work policies which can beneﬁt or harm individual
workers and the organization, depending on the boundary
conditions which facilitate or hinder utilization of the freedom
which these policies supposedly create. Whilst UPTO can
increase employees’ feeling of control, accountability, and
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de Bloom et al. Unlimited Paid Time Off Policies
work engagement, it could also lead to self-endangering
work behaviors, long working hours, and exhaustion. We
therefore sketch two competing processes and boundary
conditions. One process that builds on self-determination
theory captures “balance” (“unlocking the best”) in which
UPTO allows employees to shape their work-non-work
balance because of the autonomy that such policy gives
them, and the positive beneﬁts associated therewith. The
second process that is grounded in social exchange theory
reﬂects “escalation” (“unleashing the beast”), because UPTO
may spark detrimental social processes which constrain
leave utilization and arouse feelings of uncertainty and
guilt concerning the required completion of work. In
addition, absence of formal rules may lead to newly
emerging informal rules which are not communicated and
increase social conﬂicts. We think that empirical research
is indispensable to reveal how UPTO can be implemented
so as to beneﬁt both employers and employees. We hope
that our propositions can guide research on this important
JB, CS, JK, and TV-H were involved in conceptualizing
the review, collecting and reviewing the available literature,
developing the manuscript, contributed to the article, and
approved the submitted version.
This study was supported by the Academy of Finland,
grant number 308718.
We would like to thank Silvie Pothof and Kim Titlestad for
their support and fruitful discussion during our joint research
project on unlimited leave which has inspired our thinking in this
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