Maggie Stilwell: What is the impact of introducing unlimited leave?

Maggie Stilwell EY

An engaged and highly motivated workforce are commercial imperatives for most organisations and at EY we are always exploring new and progressive ways to retain and attract high-performing talent. So it did not escape our notice that some employers have made the move to grant unlimited annual leave to their employees, citing the positive impact the measure has had, increased productivity and a happier, more motivated workforce for instance.

At first glance, offering unlimited leave seems appealing. It looks to be a statement by the employer of absolute trust in its people, empowering them to make choices tailored to their own needs. It also signals a belief in outputs not presenteeism.

However, on closer analysis the idea presents other issues. Perhaps ironically, we see a real risk that in offering the freedom of unlimited holiday, employees, in fact, become inclined to take less leave. This would be of real concern to us.

With no clear voice or guidance from employers, there is a danger that some people will focus more on producing results and neglect the vital time they need outside of the office to recharge their batteries. It could, unintentionally, become a perceived way to get ahead.

We all know we can go the extra mile for a particular deadline or milestone, but the data suggests when we repeatedly do so we face real consequences to our physical and mental health.

For EY, in a high-demands and high-performance environment, where people are our primary asset, sustainable delivery and the wellbeing of our employees is critical. We also want to develop people who have other skills and interests outside of work, which they can bring back to our clients and teams.

So we address the risk proactively. As well as offering a holiday allowance of 27 days (plus eight bank holidays) and the chance to buy another six days of leave, we offer our people flexible working at every level of the organisation. They are empowered to decide how, when and where they work to help them to balance their daily lives and commitments at home and work.

We have published care pathways, hold quarterly knowledge sessions on wellbeing and have 500 trained mental health first aiders, who act as one of the first points of contact for staff facing mental health challenges or seeking advice.

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Offering employees unlimited leave may look an attractive benefit, but we think it could well be a Trojan horse longer term, to employee wellbeing and engagement.

Maggie Stilwell is managing partner for talent at EY in the UK and Ireland