SINGAPORE: An unlimited-leave policy sounds like an employee’s dream: It keeps staff happy, encourages them to take time off and minimises the risk of burnout.
But at some companies here whose staff had autonomy in deciding how much leave to take and when – no questions asked – it did not quite pan out.
Local humour website SGAG, for example, switched to 21 days of leave last year after just one year of offering staff unlimited paid leave. The problem? Some of its staff did not take leave instead.
Co-founder Karl Mak had wanted a culture in which the employees would have time to go out, socialise, “fall in love, have a relationship, pursue a hobby or passion outside of work and bring those experiences back to tell stories through the content they create”.
But unlimited leave had the opposite effect. “When we reached the end of 2015, people were burning out, they weren’t resting and they weren’t using it,” he told the programme Why It Matters (watch the episode).
A lot of them started saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m entitled to; I kind of feel guilty because I don’t know if I’ve earned it.’ So that was strange.
There were also those who felt that it was wrong to take leave when others were not doing so, worried about colleagues having to cover their work or about being perceived as not hard-working.
“So nobody dared to take action, and they kept working,” said Mr Mak.
SGAG assistant manager (business development and accounts) Cassi Yang, for instance, ended up taking fewer than 10 days of leave. “It was (my) first year in the job – I wanted be a bit more hard-working,” she said.
“After not taking a break for quite a while, (I felt) a bit burnt out.”
THE UNICORN QUANDARY
Ask most Singaporeans, however, whether unlimited leave would be a job perk – in a country where, by a law unchanged since 1968, employers must provide a minimum of seven days of paid leave – and they would probably say yes.
In 2015, recruitment agency Robert Half found that the one thing employees here want from their boss is more days off, which topped their wish list ahead of working from home or getting more training opportunities.
To attract and keep talent, website designer Fixx Digital was another company that implemented unlimited leave in 2015.
But it was exploited by some employees, and managing director Darren Lim forecasted that there could be staff taking 40 days of annual leave. “Effectively that’s almost like spending a quarter of a year on vacation,” he said.
What we realised is that the ones who worked the hardest and were the most deserving … utilised it the least. The ones who didn’t work the hardest would tend to take more leave.
Mr Lim dubs the unlimited-leave system a unicorn, “something that’s an ideal, a myth … that’s nice to have”.
“But when you put it into practice, from first-hand experience, from the companies that have implemented these systems, it’s impractical,” he lamented.
WATCH: The mixed reality (2:23)
The company has since modified its system, offering unlimited leave only to those who have worked at least a year in the firm and have shown good results.
At Netflix Asia, which set up shop in Singapore last year with the unlimited leave system – a company policy that has been in place worldwide since 2004 – its experience has been more pleasant, for the firm and its staff.
Take, for example, its public policy co-ordinator Darren Ong, who has been with the company for over a year and is taking three months off for the birth of his child.
He said his colleagues are supportive and happy with the arrangement, with his wife being “the happiest”.
“In this age when we’re all working using the Internet, (we’re) reachable pretty much anywhere. There’s room for freedom … to have a say in managing (our) own time,” he added.
“If you ask me now how many days of leave I’ve taken, I wouldn’t be able to give you an exact number.”
Netflix Asia director (consumer and brand communications) Anne Wallin explained that employees can take whatever amount of leave they need, but they also have a “responsibility to the team and to the company to do the right thing”.
“We’re bringing in people to work at Netflix who bought into what we’re doing, and they love the work they’re doing,” she added.
So when you have things like parental leave or vacations, they also understand that helps them ... to do their jobs better.
As unlimited leave is not a common practice, it is understandable that most employees do not know how to respond to this unstructured system, said Mr Martin Gabriel, the founder of human resources consultancy HRMatters21.
“We’ve been conditioned to behave in a certain way. When a company surprises its employees, saying that ‘we’re giving you unlimited leave’ … they would be confused because there are no guidelines on how (they) should go about taking this leave.”
Most employees may be cautious, as they would not want to be seen to be abusing the system, added Mr Gabriel.
According to him, the average Singaporean worker should get between 15 and 18 days of leave a year. And if more leave is given, he suggests guidelines instead of a “free-for-all”.
On the flip side, he cautioned, if a company does not provide adequate leave, some employees would probably go “doctor shopping” and take more medical leave, even if they are not genuinely sick.
A healthcare chain, which spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the number of medical certificates dispensed spike on Mondays and right after public holidays.
The number also went up on Sep 22, the day the iPhone 8 was launched in Singapore.
Family physician David Tan said “a small proportion” of patients may try to stretch public holidays to get “a little bit more rest”.
“As an employer, if you start to see employees take leave or call in sick every time work comes around or there’s a long weekend holiday, that may be something you may want to have a conversation with your employee about,” he said.
The cost of medical leave for firms is higher than they think, noted Mr Gabriel.
A person who earns S$100 a day would cost the company the same amount if he were on medical leave, in addition to the loss of output valued at S$100.
And if one adds the medical reimbursement, say, at S$50, the total cost when that employee goes on medical leave is S$250, calculated Mr Gabriel.
The solution is not necessarily unlimited paid leave. What that system is, however, is a new way to think about work-life balance, workplace flexibility and how bosses can trust their staff to decide how many hours they need to put in to show results.
Watch this episode of Why It Matters here (new episodes every Monday).