Toxic Holiday.

For more than a decade, Netflix employees have been allowed to take unlimited vacation days. Pundits, columnists, and various others, can’t seem to work out if this is a very good idea, or a very bad one.

Some suggest that empowering workers to control their own schedules engenders more responsibility for outcomes – people are made almost hyper-aware of the fact that just showing up is not enough to keep their job, they have to perform.

On the other hand, many feel that these policies subtly pressure people into more arduous work hours and schedules. That Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has to take six weeks of holiday each year to set an example for his staff, certainly suggests that most employees aren’t really taking any more vacation time than they would under less ‘liberal’ policies.

Whether or not Netflix’s unlimited vacation offer appeals to or terrifies you, probably speaks to two primary factors: 1) the degree of sensitivity you have to cultural norms around work time and standard schedules; 2) your own sense of self-control. In fact, looking at these two things in view of something so seemingly innovative as the Netflix policy, helps us to understand how these factors play into worker productivity under more normal circumstances.

In one think piece reflecting on Netflix’s policy, a columnist wrote, “Freedom gives people such a strong sense of ownership and accountability that, like business owners, many end up taking no vacation at all.”

I think this is a very rosy interpretation. Whilst it is likely true that giving employees more control over their work hours will likely result in happier and more productive people, it probably downplays the impact of the cultural and social pressures that encourage them to adhere to established norms in the first place.

In fact, many companies with unlimited vacation policies have had to incentivize employees to actually make use of them. Evernote tried giving employees as much as $1,000 to spend on vacation, and FullContact had to pony up $7,500. Even then, companies had to ask that employees submit receipts showing that the funds had actually been spent on a vacation, if they wanted them to really, truly take time off.

Indeed, this reflects larger trends in the US workforce; US employees only use 51% of their eligible paid vacation time and paid time off.

Is it that employees at all levels are genuinely so busy with meaningful work that they can’t step away? As I argued last month in my discussion on the phenomenon of ‘bullshit jobs’, probably not.

Indeed, those who feel needed and valued in their positions are likely to feel safe taking time away. Those who feel insecure or redundant, probably won’t want to risk demonstrating that the company really can function without them. Scott Dobrosky, career trend analyst at Glassdoor found that American employees don’t take vacation time because they are afraid of getting behind or of losing their job.

But there is something more, too. Many cultures value ‘hard work’ and our societies are more or less constructed around a shared understanding of what ‘normal’ working hours are.

In the same study, Dobrosky notes that19% of Americans don’t take time off because they hope it will lead to promotion, and another 13% do it to outperform colleagues. We know that one way to prove our loyalty and value is to show up a bit earlier and leave a bit later, and this is a behavior that is almost universally understood as a symbol of hard work and dedication.

In fact, sometimes logging extra hours does lead to recognition in the form of compensation or praise, despite many company claims to be moving toward outcome-based models. The fact is, it’s very difficult to quantify outcomes for employees that aren’t in jobs linked directly to sales, for instance.

It’s hard to disaggregate individual contributions from team projects. It’s even more difficult to compare across groups with different job functions. Whilst some companies develop sophisticated models to parse all of this out, in reality, it’s often the case that ‘reliability’, ‘dedication’, and ‘hard work’ are taken as proxy indicators for ‘good performance’, and the easiest way for many mangers to measure these fuzzy qualities, is simply by time spent in the office or at work.

Even where office time logged isn’t measured per se, the cultural and social frameworks through which we interpret these qualities almost always, in the case of north America and the UK, are built on deeply rooted ideas about long hours.

Not “being seen in the office” may affect a person’s chances of promotion, result in a smaller pay rise than office-based peers and lower performance evaluations, according to research by the London Business School and the University of California.

And this is true even though we know that working longer hours does not directly translate into working more effectively, but rather, often has exactly the opposite effect on ultimate productivity.

Granted, we have seen an explosion of ‘non-traditional’ work hours in recent years. And of course those in service, entertainment, medical, and many other industries have never kept anything like ‘normal’ working hours. However, if you ask the average American or Brit of working age what a standard work week entails, they’ll almost certainly tell you 9-to-5, and perhaps overtime.

And that says something pretty powerful about how normative those hours are in our societies. It’s so significant a force that even when people are able to work remotely, they often go to great lengths to recreate the environment into which they have been acculturated in their early working lives. The proliferation of ‘co-working spaces’ speaks to exactly the need to reconstruct the social and cultural routines that signal ‘work’ to many of us.

Moreover, people who work remotely, with startling frequency, begin and end their days at more or less the same times as they would an office job (+ commute time), despite evidence to suggest that workers are actually more productive when they start slightly later.

Though in part this might be linked to the availability argument – we work when others are reachable – the expansion of connectivity belies this, as does the increasingly global work environment. Unless you are French, you are probably connected to your work outside of 9-5, and in some cases, this might better serve your requirements.

For instance, if your major client is based halfway around the world, 9pm conference calls might be standard practice. The trouble is that even after a 9pm conference call, workers more often than not get up to start the following workday at 9am. We keep these hours regardless of their actual benefit because we prioritize these social and cultural norms, at times to the detriment of actual performance.

This in turn says something meaningful about how we train people to work in the first place.

In the 1960s, Mischel and colleagues at Stanford launched a series of experiments with children to better understand delayed gratification and self-control.

A researcher with whom the child had a trusted relationship would play a few games with the child before introducing a new one. The new game would center around the presentation of various treats – marshmallows, pretzels, etc.

The researcher would explain to the child that they would leave the room, and if the child could wait, then they could have all of the treats on the table when they returned. If they couldn’t, then they could ring a bell and the researcher would come back immediately to give them one of the treats – but that would be all they would receive and the game would be ended.

The wait time ranged from between 15 to 20 minutes – only 1/3 of all children playing made it to the end. The children varied significantly in how long they could stand waiting before ringing the bell. Older children and girls were able to wait longer, which led researchers to suggest that neural development and hormones (notably, testosterone) play a role in impulse control. Curiously, children who were able to wait it out later tested much higher in the SATs.

What if social and cultural pressures provide a kind of artificial impulse control for workers? Those who are sensitive to expectations and norms benefit from an external force working against their internal desires, or ‘hot system’. The ‘hot system’ is emotional, simple, reflexive and centered in the amygdala. The opposing ‘cool system’ is centered in the frontal lobes and hippocampus. To put it simply, in the ‘hot system’ the stimulus controls us; in the cool system we control the stimulus.

However, the ‘hot system’ doesn’t translate directly to material needs and wants: the desire to fit in, follow the rules, and avoid social exclusion, censure or chastisement, can all supplant lower-level desires. This is what cultural and social norms around working hours provide.

If you think about it very intently, you’ll surely be able to recall a morning where you debated the various benefits of calling in sick when you were not. You likely weighed up what work truly couldn’t be done tomorrow (likely, very little, if you were honest with yourself) but also the social response your decision would garner.

That nervous, discomforting feeling you have your belly when you consider playing hooky could be your ‘hot system’ revolting against the idea of doing something that could, if it goes wrong, make you feel very, very uncomfortable, embarrassed, and unhappy.

For many of us, that works to our advantage and keeps us from Hunter S. Thompsoning ourselves out of a job.

However, it may have an overall negative affect on our ability to develop self-control in the long run. This might be why longer workers are not better workers. They may be pressured enough to get their butts into chairs, but they aren’t able to make the minute-by-minute choices that enable them to hone in on a task and get it done.

None of this is to say that unlimited holiday policies are or aren’t a good idea – it is to say that cultural and social expectations around work time play an important role in motivating employees, and its powerful enough that it should not be overlooked.

However, we should not immediately or uncritically associate these forces with productivity. Quite the contrary, they may not only make us less efficient and effective, they may depress our own development and maintenance of the delayed gratification and self-control that makes some people output-oriented workers.

Melyn McKay is a partner with Monticello LLP and a socio-cultural anthropologist.