Earlier this year, Richard Branson introduced a radical new policy for Virgin employees, offering his personal staff unlimited holiday rather than a fixed number of days in a given year.
Announcing the idea on his blog, Branson said those working in his family office, his investment team, marketing, brand and PR teams and the Virgin Unite foundation could take holiday without first seeking permission or having to keep track of the number of days they were taking off. As long, that is, as they felt "100 percent comfortable" that they were up to date with their work and their absence would not affect the business or their careers.
The policy, or indeed non-policy, is a modern solution to a modern problem — our jobs are infringing on our personal lives more than ever and the nine-to-five life is becoming a thing of the past. We talk constantly of how our devices bring work into our homes but few meaningful solutions are forthcoming. If staff are expected to be flexible with their time, why should they expect any less in return?
It is good to see an employer signaling to his employees that he values them so highly he is prepared to offer them such a generous benefit. Branson says he has taken his inspiration from online video subscription service Netflix. But other than these two companies, such a policy is relatively unheard of.
We can presume that the underlying psychological contract here is that Virgin is prepared to support the health and well-being of staff through this holiday benefit but that it would expect in return, implicitly, the loyalty and commitment of the employees to the aims and objectives of the business.
Any psychological contract worth its salt has to be of benefit to both employers and employees. The more employers meet the needs and aspirations of their employees, the more the employees should reciprocate with a commitment to making the business more successful.
Employers are increasingly buying into the idea that a healthy workforce is a productive one. As early as 1851, British social reformer John Ruskin noted that for people to be happy in their work, they need to be fit for it, not have too much of it, and have some sense that they can achieve success in it.
More recently, a wealth of research has shown that workers need to rebalance their lives. They need to minimize long and unsocial hours and take respite away from their duties — as well as the technology now associated with it. They need to spend time with their families and friends, in order, in the medium term, to deliver a better and efficient service. Unlimited holiday would seem like the perfect solution.
But the success of a scheme such as Branson's depends on the extent to which employees are involved in the decision to introduce it. The general principle should be that employers survey their employees about what would make their work less stressful and their job more satisfying before working with them to design an appropriate policy. This is an idea suggested decades ago by Sigmund Freud, who believed "the daily work of earning a livelihood affords particular satisfaction when it has been selected by free choice".
With technology interrupting our respite more than ever, we need to come up with new solutions. As Mark Twain once wrote: "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got."
We need more companies like Virgin. So many proudly state that their people are their most valuable resource but so few translate it into meaningful actions. Let's keep in mind the words of Vincent van Gogh about creating balance in our lives, and the dangers of workaholism: "I put my heart and soul into my work, and lost my mind in the process".
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