For women who’ve grown accustomed to unlimited time with family and friends, re-entering the workforce and adjusting to a finite number of vacation days can feel like a very unwelcome wake-up call.
And though a slew of research supports the idea that unplugging from the office can promote heart health, alleviate depression, and reduce stress, Americans receive on average 16 days of paid vacation and holidays a year, putting us nineteenth out of the 20 advanced nations in a study that looked at such rates.
But before you start crossing off that annual summer trip to the beach, take the advice of career consultants who say approaching the vacation conversation both during the hiring process and throughout the fiscal year can result in a time-off arrangement that works for both you and your employer.
“Unlimited” Vacation Days Is a Thing
Once upon a time, most employee handbooks broke days down between vacation days and sick days. In today’s workforce, many companies are calling it all “paid time off” (PTO). While most company packages offer between two to four weeks off, there’s a relatively new trend of companies offering unlimited PTO. Sound too good to be true? It depends.
“People actually take fewer days when their days are unlimited,” says Katie Donovan, founder of Equal Pay Negotiations. “Whereas, if you have a set three weeks, you’ll force yourself to take them.”
If your new company is dangling the “unlimited” carrot, do some research before you start planning that four-week tour of Asia. Some companies may embrace unlimited vacation time on paper, but may also have a culture that frowns upon being away from the office for large chunks of time.
“Do your due diligence on a company before accepting an offer,” says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career expert and founder of SixFigureStart. “Are vacation days honored? Or is it a workaholic culture?”
Don’t Shy Away From Negotiating
Many other companies tackle vacation time more traditionally, with a set number of days laid out at the beginning of the year. If you find that you need more time from a prospective employer, feel free to negotiate for them, much like you would your salary. However, be sure to wait until an offer is in hand before pushing hard on the benefits.
And once you’ve been offered a position, be aware that successful negotiations are never as direct in real life as they are in TV or in the movies.
A strategy that works for women is to approach negotiation as a conversation, Donovan says.
“After thanking them profusely for the offer, [try saying] ‘I’m surprised the vacation days are so low. I was getting triple that in my last role.’ Just give information,” she suggests. Or ask questions: “How did you come up with that number? Why is it three weeks—Is there a way to get to four weeks?”
Another tactic? If you are not getting the salary you want, ask that the company compensate you in additional vacation days instead.
In the end, if the company just won’t budge, remember to focus on the big picture.
That’s what Karen did, who’s a New York City-based attorney and mom of two and took a government role after working at a private company. She once “had tremendous flexibility” with vacation days. Downsizing from five weeks to less than half that amount of time wasn’t easy.
But in accepting her role as a public servant, “I decided it was time to give back to other people,” she says. “I was willing to make some sacrifices in that regard.”
Be Strategic About Asking for Time Off
Ideal vacation times differ from industry to industry, as well as geographically.
“If you’re in retail, you’re slammed from October through December 24, then return for the next week, says Donovan. “In that case, an early January vacation might be a good thing” since it will have less impact on your employer’s day to day.
Karen arranges her vacation around her kids’ school vacation days.
“My job currently allows me to take vacation without pay, so I avail myself of that,” she says. “I take about 10 days per year without pay. My children are accustomed to taking certain vacations. It’s worth it to me.”
And when it comes to actually getting clearance for those days off, do your homework before approaching your boss. Make sure there are no conflicts—such as another person on your team taking the same time away—or reasons for your request to be declined. In other words, don’t ask for significant time off before a major deliverable or deadline.
The bottom line? Advocate for your time off—keeping in mind that it’s crucial to your mental and physical health.
“It’s always good to be refreshed,” Ceniza-Levine says. “It helps you avoid burnout and keeps you more productive and better able to focus.”
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