Vacation, personal, and medical leave: The latest trends & policies

How does vacation, personal, and medical leave typically work? What kinds of policies exist at most firms and organizations? What’s the best way to communicate with your employer around taking leave?

The evolution of time at work

The whole idea of “time at work” is transforming in many arenas. If you have a job where your physical presence is absolutely required (e.g., physician, trial lawyer, hairdresser, security officer, teacher in a classroom, bus driver, restaurant manager) and/or you’re paid by the hour (compensation varies based on the amount of time that you work), this evolution in how your time is valued and managed probably hasn’t changed too much. However, if you’re in a salaried role (compensation is fixed regardless of how much you work) and technology has meaningfully evolved the way your job is done, chances are you’ve already been impacted or will be by the changing trends related to remote workers and the expectations around how your time is spent and what you produce.

With this evolution, you’ll probably end up having more flexibility and maybe even less accountability related to the actual hours you spend. However, as with all things in life, this benefit comes with trade-offs—particularly higher expectations around your availability and service level, not just during business hours, but every day, around the clock. Also, this change puts more pressure on your deliverables and how you impact the organization, which in turn leads your managers to focus more keenly on what you actually “do” for the organization, or the things you produce.

Moreover, the “market value” of what each of us provides to an organization is continuously being judged and needs to be a focus of how you spend your time, what you choose to do or not do. If they can’t point to something specific that you’re contributing, you’ll likely find yourself at risk when times get tough or budgets get tight. All that said, if you stay engaged, think ahead, have a high service level, deliver on what’s asked, and find ways to do things of value that surprise everyone, we’re pretty certain you’ll always find yourself with a valued role in an organization. While this enhanced scrutiny on what you’re producing can be challenging, it’s also a great opportunity because most career paths are no longer linear. It’s much more possible to chart your own course, to leapfrog, to dial back and ramp back up, regaining any ground lost temporarily due to family or other types of commitments.

Standard time-off policies

When it comes to vacation, nearly all organizations do not allow employees to take vacation in the first six months of employment as a standard practice. That said, most employers will be reasonable about allowing newer employees to take a day or two off, particularly if it’s defined at the time of hire (e.g., sister’s wedding over a long weekend or long-planned family reunion trip). The conditions for taking that time might be borrowing against paid leave that will be available to you after the introductory/probationary period or might require you to take the time as unpaid. Alternatively, if the time is relatively limited (e.g., a Friday on a long weekend), they might just ask that you remain in touch and responsive on the road, particularly if you’re salaried and regularly work more than a standard 40-hour work week.

As a baseline, the standard number of vacation days provided typically ranges from ten or twenty days a year (or two to four weeks effectively), and then employees are able to earn additional time as they become more tenured. Typically, a day is added to the base vacation allowance for every year spent with the organization.  Meanwhile, many firms enable a bigger jump in available vacation for longer-tenured employees when they reach certain inflection points (e.g., five years or more spent with the organization).

Historically, most organizations provided employees with a block of vacation leave and a separate block of sick leave, but that has changed for most firms to be a single allocation of “Paid Time Off” or PTO. With this combined allocation, employers expect employees to be judicious about how they use the available time—taking less vacation if they need more time to take care of sick kids as an example.

In organizations that provide PTO as a benefit, it’s allocated on an annual basis, effectively letting you accumulate time as you work. Some organizations will allow you to carry PTO over from year to year, (e.g., you take none of your benefit one year while taking double the next year). Additionally, with this approach, you are paid out the value of your accumulated vacation time when you decide to leave the company. This can significantly benefit you in the event that you’d like to take time off between jobs or if you’re fired and need more time to find a new position beyond the severance that’s paid. Meanwhile, many organizations have a “use or lose” policy, meaning you have to take your vacation earned in a particular year within that period or the benefit expires and you no longer have it on the books as a benefit that will pay out if you happen to leave the company.

Non-standard time-off policies

Over the past decade or so, many firms have evolved their benefits packages for positions that work remotely or take advantage of flexible hours. Several start-ups and tech firms, in particular, are eliminating structured leave policies entirely, realizing that it’s an outdated paradigm for many employees, especially salaried employees and those who travel frequently and work around the clock. The benefit of this evolved vacation policy for the employee is the opportunity to make work “work” for you in terms of coaching your kid’s teams, getting to the doctor, incorporating workouts into your day, and more. It also recognizes that not all people are created equal and not all people create the same value. More specifically, an hour of one person’s time differs in value than the hour of another’s for a whole slew of reasons—domain and expertise, productivity and speed, power of persuasion and ability to close deals, or a whole host of other variables. Meanwhile, the economic benefit for employers is that it eliminates the accumulated liability of vacation or PTO pay as a benefit that they have to carry on their books and pay out to employees over time and/or when they leave the company.

As an employee, this lack of structure and definition around when and how you work can be great, or you might prefer to know when you need to clock in and out. You may prefer to be out of pocket entirely while these less structured leave policies implicitly expect that you’ll be more available and ubiquitously working. In the end, if you’re entrepreneurial, know how to add value, and continuously show up with the deliverables that are expected and ideally a few that you initiate on your end, employers will appreciate your work and accommodate a reasonable level of vacations and other time out of pocket. Just make sure you’re proactive about letting your manager, peers, and reports know when you’ll be out. If you plan on ducking out a few hours early, try to give everyone reasonable notice if possible. For vacation time, you should aim to let people know at least a month or two in advance. 

Success is expensive—a.k.a. be careful what you wish for

Most of us endeavor to advance in our careers and when that happens, it’s a great thing…for the most part. Advancement usually comes with more control over your decisions, more compensation, and other benefits. But one downside of advancement, particularly into a management position, is the increasing inability to check out entirely. The old saying, “to whom much is given, much is expected” definitely applies here. Our point is that the more senior you become and the more people depend on you for support, guidance, approvals, and decisions, the more difficult it will be to go entirely on vacation. Moreover, the more senior you become in an organization, the less relevant standard leave policies apply to you, for better or for worse.

Long-term vacation and medical leave

If you’re looking to take a longer block of time than the standard one or two-week vacation (say a month or six weeks), companies typically allow employees to take an unpaid personal leave after they’ve worked with the organization for a stipulated amount of time. When it comes to taking time off for a medical reason, your job might be protected under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for twelve weeks. If you need time to care for an immediate family member (such as your child or parent), many companies allocate a certain block of PTO (typically 40 hours per year). If you run out of that time, then you go on unpaid status. Under unpaid status, you’ll likely be protected under FMLA. For more information on FMLA, check out our Maternity & Family Leave blog post.

Under FMLA, there are several statutory and regulatory provisions concerning medical certification and verification. Employers can request medical certification, though the information they can request is limited. Your medical information will not be shared with anyone and it should be kept in a file separate from your personnel file, usually by the benefits team or a leave specialist. Your manager should not know the details related to your medical leave other than its duration unless you decide to share the specifics. When you return from leave, your employer can require documentation stating that you are medically cleared to return to work.

Main takeaways

  • Know your preference. Everyone is different and leave policies are a major factor in our happiness and maybe even our ability to succeed or fail over time. Evaluate what makes the most sense for you in the context of all the other variables that you care about, weighing all the pros and cons of a job together using our Job Scorecard.

  • Stay responsible. If you work for a firm that has a less structured leave policy, you should capitalize on the flexibility to make work “work” for you, but achieve it in a way that doesn’t compromise your performance or perceived value to the organization over the longer-term (i.e., one- or two-week vacations every six months are fine, but regular two- or three-week vacations where you check out entirely usually are not).

  • Show your value. With increased flexibility comes greater responsibility and more importance on showing your value to the organization in concrete, tangible ways. Ensuring you’re continuously achieving value for the organization guarantees you’re more trusted and therefore granted (either overtly or passively) more flexibility to attend school plays, dentist appointments, disappear to work out, etc.

About Alexis


Alexis Harding is Women at Work’s resident HR expert. A long-time HR professional based in the Boston area, Alexis has rich experience in the HR departments of several large institutions over nearly two decades. She is here to engage with your questions about a range of topics that might be impacting your career and your overall success.


About Christina

Christina-Van-Houten-standard time-off policies-vacation-days-work-remotely

Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.