The January doldrums, with their attending snow and cold are upon us. Vacation and getting away from it all is top of mind for many people. So the emerging practice of offering unlimited vacation by some companies may sound appealing. But it may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

In our organizational Culture Study last year, over two thirds (67%) of respondents said that they had experienced productivity or quality issues due to employee fatigue and burnout. While most estimates put the number of US organizations offering unlimited vacation at less than 5%, giving people more control over their leisure time and vacation would seem like a logical response. But this freedom also comes with responsibility for managers and employees to use it wisely. Confusion and fear of repercussions for perceived overuse can lead to people taking even less time off than they did before.

What can people do to make these programs actually effective? If you’re considering this policy, or even want to make sure staff takes advantage of traditional vacation time, consider the following:

  • Leaders have to model the behavior. If managers say, “We trust you, take the time you need,” but are never seen taking time off themselves, it’s a mixed message.
  • Provide coverage to make time off less stressful. There’s nothing worse than coming back to a full email inbox. When a manager knows someone needs to be out, they need to help the employee identify resources to backfill so workers can actually take time off without worrying.
  • Follow through on the expectations you set. Don’t tell people you only care about the results and not the time if you don’t really mean it.
  • You still need to track time off. Tracking time off can be important for compliance, but when you are exceeding compliance requirements, tracking is even more important. You want to be able to analyze the impact of these policies and understand what the patterns are for better planning in the future.
  • Be transparent. Help people understand what limits there may be to time off as part of a team. Strong teams will understand they need to work together and be transparent about each other’s vacation needs so they can cover for each other and everyone can find the right balance.
  • Protect your top performers. Often these are the people who are most likely to work through vacations. Help save them from themselves and be sure to encourage and model for them how to step away when needed.
  • Leave them alone. When you are away, let your staff handle things. It’s a good growth experience for them. And when they are away, don’t bother them. They’ll come back feeling refreshed and happy to be digging back in, not feeling like they never left.