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Don't be fooled by these work 'perks'

Free dinners at your desk. Free yoga classes in the lunchroom. Free rides home for workers who stay past 8 p.m. Free nanny care for young mothers on a business trip. Frozen eggs for would-be mothers. Even unlimited vacation. New-age-y job perks that once seemed exclusive to hip start-ups are making their way through all kinds of HR departments now. But do companies that offer them have ulterior motives for doing so?

When LinkedIn joined the "unlimited vacation" crowd, many observers cheered the move as proof that firms are working harder to keep employees happy.

But unlimited vacation, sometimes called "discretionary time off," has plenty of detractors. Some firms that have tried it found their workers actually take fewer vacation days when there's no clear rule about how many paid days off they're entitled to. The policy is a nifty balance sheet boon for the corporation, however. Banked vacation days are a liability — an average of nearly $1,900 per worker at the start of 2015, according to a U.S. Travel Association report — and the bill comes due when workers with saved days off cash out.

Meanwhile, those free rides home? More incentive to work late. Free dinners? Hey, you never have to leave the office. Free plane tickets for your baby and your nanny? Now you have no reason to turn down that work trip. Frozen eggs? Have a baby later; your time belongs to us, now.

When is a perk not a perk? When it's a Trojan horse that actually encourages overwork.

"If you are working in a workaholic environment, I'm sorry, mindfulness classes or an hour of yoga in the afternoon is sort of ridiculous," said Brigid Schulte, author of the book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. "It kind of says, 'I'm going to throw you a bone, then get some more blood out of you.' "

It's great to have someone pick up your dry cleaning or order a pizza for you, Schulte said, but many of these perks nudge workers in unhealthy ways. Even pingpong tables or climbing walls can lure workers into a culture that encourages employees never to leave the office, Schulte said.

"Rather than hire more workers to spread the work out, really investigate the meaning and mission of work and workflow and reorganize the way work gets done, the perks, in the darkest sense, can be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that we're all buying into a work culture that's over the top and often unfair, particularly to those starting out," said Schulte, who is also director of the Breadwinning and Caregiving Program at the New America Foundation, a think tank.

The unlimited vacation time perk is an interesting case study for what happens when workers don't have clear lines dividing work and home life. Kickstarter abandoned the policy, saying workers were confused about how much vacation they should take.

"The world of work has very few boundaries left. There's no boundary between work and life. No boundary between office and home, between night and day," said Anne Weisberg, senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that studies work-life issues. "I think that the few boundaries left, like vacation time, are worth keeping."

Vacation days that accrue provide a specific accounting of earned time off, and prevent vacation days from bleeding into work days, she said. "In general, people need guidance, and I think it's actually better to tell people, 'This is the expectation.' If people have to create their own expectation, they will default often to what's the safest choice," she said.

At many shops, the safest choice is to skip vacations.

"In many workplaces, this idea of the ideal worker as someone who is willing and able to work all the time is a very strong part of the culture," said Weisberg. "You can say, 'unlimited vacation.' But if there is a disconnect between that policy and the culture of work, (employees) will default to the culture of work."

Schulte stressed that almost any such perk, from unlimited time off to free rides home for late-night workers, could be positive or negative; what matters is the way the culture at a workplace encourages their use. When private equity firm KKR & Co. announced it would pay for a child and a caregiver to accompany parents on business trips, the "flying nanny" headlines wrote themselves. But Schulte said a thoughtfully implemented program could be great for parents.

"I know plenty of women who have had to pay to bring their own nannies with them on travel," she said. "Just because you have a baby doesn't mean you want to fall off the face of the earth. I think that's something that you want to open up the possibility for … but you don't want to send the harsh message, 'You must travel at all costs, all the time, and we'll send a nanny along with you.' "

While Weisberg was more critical of the idea, she's encouraged that firms are experimenting with creative ways to help new parents.

"I do think that it's a great thing that business leaders are focused on the transition to parenthood and helping make the transition back to work as stress free as possible," Weisberg said. She prefers a new policy by Accenture that states clearly that new parents don't have to travel for a year after a child is born, another policy that sets clear boundaries.

So what's the difference between a genuinely helpful perk and one that's designed to lure employees into overwork? It's all about clear lines, Schulte said. Late-night rides home for emergencies or particularly big projects are great, for example; but when they are routine, they're a trap.

"It's fine to work late for two or three weeks on a big project. But how much is enough and how do you know you are finished? Or do the goal posts keep moving?" she said. All the free rides and pizza in the world don't make up for lost personal time, she said. A better perk? Getting time off on the back end after a big project finishes.

"Then these [other] perks could really be that — perks — and not golden handcuffs that look nice, but are really designed to tie you to your desk all hours," she said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the Families and Work Institute is a nonpartisan research organization.