Unlimited paid time off sounds great on paper.

You can take as much time as you need. And you don’t have to submit requests, track days or worry about saving time for any unplanned events. But several companies have found that workers often end up taking less time off instead of more.

So some companies are trying a different approach: mandatory time off.

Utah-based photo book company Chatbooks offered unlimited time off since it launched in 2014, but many employees weren’t taking extended time off – especially since the pandemic, said Dan Jimenez, president and chief operating officer. Himself included.

“I was the biggest culprit.”

As a result, “people were having a hard time with their mental and emotional health at work,” he said.

To help, the company, which has about 150 full- and part-time employees, implemented a mandatory paid time off policy: Employees are expected to take five consecutive business days off every quarter.

“It is more about setting a minimum than a maximum,” said Jimenez. “Unlimited PTO on its own just doesn’t work.”

For his first mandated week off, he spent time with his family, and went hiking and mountain biking.

The company still has unlimited time off for things like doctor’s appointments or children’s school events. And if a worker wants to extend their days beyond a week, they can coordinate with their manager to work it out. Currently, mandated days off only apply to full-time workers.

The only time employees can’t take their mandated time off is October 1 through December 23 because that’s the company’s busiest time. Workers can still take a day or two if needed during that period. After the holidays, the entire company shuts down for two weeks.

Making sure everyone disconnects

Airline marketing strategy firm SimpliFlying has been mandating its workers take time off since 2016.

The company, which currently has five employees, used to have an unlimited vacation policy, but some were using it more than others.

“Some people took time off regularly, while others were still working weekends and never taking time off. There was a huge disparity,” said founder and CEO Shashank Nigam.

The mandatory policy initially required workers to take a week off every seven weeks, but that turned out to be too frequent. Employees now must take a week off every eight weeks. Sick days are still unlimited.

As a small company, Nigam had to put a few requirements in place to make sure the vacations don’t disrupt business operations. While two colleagues can be out the same week, they can’t take back-to-back weeks off. “There always needs to be a handover before the next person goes off.”

And here’s how serious the company is about ensuring employees disconnect: If you work during your time off, like checking in on Slack or responding to emails, you won’t get paid for the week. They also give clients at least three weeks notice when someone is going to take time off.

Nigam doesn’t want his employees thinking about work when they are off. “You come back refreshed. You come with smarter inputs and are more creative.”

‘Unplugged Days’

When the pandemic hit and data platform company Cloudera went fully remote, managers noticed workers weren’t taking enough time off, even though the company has an unlimited policy for its US workers.

So this summer, the company started regularly extending weekends to help employees disconnect.

“We realized we needed to be thinking of the mental health of employees and how to give them some additional days off,” said Bob Mahan, Cloudera chief human resources officer.

“Unplugged Days” happen every three weeks. First, employees get a Friday off to make a three-day weekend. After the next three weeks pass, there’s a four-day weekend and after another three weeks, a five-day weekend. And then the cycle repeats.

During Unplugged Days, the entire company shuts down, except for a few employees to handle any customer issues (they get days off at different times). Workers aren’t supposed to send any emails, schedule meetings or perform any other work.

“We set the tone from the top that these are supposed to be completely unplugged days,” said Mahan

To date, employees have 12 Unplugged Days, and 20 more are scheduled between now and April 2021. The company plans to keep the Unplugged Days as long as it is remote.