Unlimited holidays for Virgin workers – good idea or bad practice?

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The recent announcement by the boss of Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, that his personal staff will be offered unlimited holidays as part of a new company policy has been met with mixed reactions from trade union leaders and human resources experts.

Last month Branson published a blog on his website entitled Why we’re letting Virgin staff take as much holiday as they want.

The blog included an excerpt from his new book about the policy pioneered by the US on-line streaming firm Netflix:

“It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off,” he wrote.

“The assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel 100 per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business – or, for that matter, their careers!”

Some observers have welcomed the move which they see as a potential step forward in the fight for improved labour rights.

The UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Frances O’Grady told Equal Times that a policy of limitless holidays might benefit workers.

“Good holiday entitlement is important for our well-being and we watch out for any initiatives that might improve paid leave for workers.

“Around two million people are not getting their full paid leave entitlement, so for them the floor is more important right now than the ceiling and we need tough action to deal with bad bosses who break the law.”

However, a number of employment experts have criticised the move and questioned whether it could backfire and increase worker stress.

“Although greater flexibility in the timing and frequency of holidays is a welcome development limitless holiday policies may not deliver the anticipated benefits,” warns Nick Bacon, Professor of Human Resources management at the Cass Business School in London.

“Employees seeking more flexibility than their co-workers may experience backlash which damages interpersonal relations at work. This may particularly affect employees with the greatest need for holiday flexibility, in particular women with children and caring responsibilities.”

Bacon’s point is reiterated by Gulzaar Barn, a researcher who authored a piece for the University of Oxford’s popular Practical Ethics blog entitled, Will Virgin staff really be allowed to take as much time off as they want?

“Even in the current system of statutory holiday leave, it would be rare for someone to take their entitled holiday leave and feel 100 per cent comfortable about doing so,” says Barn.

“What ensured that the employee still felt able to take this leave, however, was the fact that it was enshrined in law, and part of their workplace rights. Without this, taking leave will be up to the employee, whose decision will inevitably be influenced by work pressures, fellow colleagues, and the office environment in general.”

Meanwhile, others have pointed out that the nature of the announcement – including a plug for Branson’s new book – looks like a straight forward PR stunt which has successfully captured the attention of much of the media.

PR specialist and CEO of the Red Consultancy Mike Morgan, told Equal Times:
“It is a headline grabbing initiative which on closer examination is actually a roll back of the contractual right to paid leave.

“It is likely to lead to a significantly more stressed and less secure working environment where ‘taking holiday’ is an individual judgment as opposed to something your employer insists upon as part of their contribution to your well-being.”