In the News

‘Work Guilt’ Is Real and It’s Keeping You From Using Your Vacation Days

October 28, 2019

When I initially landed my first full-time job, I was paralyzed by the idea of taking a vacation day even though I had two weeks of paid time off in my benefits package

It’s not as though my manager expressed any kind of concern about me taking time off. I watched several co-workers plan their annual trips to Hawaii or backpacking voyages to Europe. It was doable, but I didn’t think I could do it.

Why? Maybe it was because it was my first full-time job that luckily included benefits like paid time off. Up until that point I had been freelancing, and when you freelance, you don’t get paid to go on vacation. You work and save up until you think you can afford to take a few days (or weeks) off, and you financially plan around that. On top of that, maybe it was because I felt guilty about taking a vacation. Here I was, getting paid to write and edit articles. I felt immeasurably lucky. If I took time off, wouldn’t that kind of look like I was ungrateful? Or taking for granted I had a “9-to-5” gig that didn’t have me stressing about getting a work and uniform paycheck every other week?

Five years and two jobs later, I make sure to take my vacation time before the year is up. I had seen too many burnouts, too many instances where people regretted not taking advantage of that time to spend with their families. But a lot of American millennials and Gen Z still don’t take their paid vacation time.

Almost 44 million employed Americans say that they end up having seven (or more!) paid vacations left at the end of the year. Priceline wanted to learn why this is the case, and surveyed over 1,000 full-time, U.S. employees and found “more than half (55%) of Americans have more than 10 vacations days each year, yet one third of people have 7 days or more still remaining through the end of the year.” They learned the reason why, too: work guilt.

24% of Gen Z employees admitted that they feel guilty taking a vacation from work. That’s compared to 19% of millennials, 16% Gen X, and only 8% of Baby Boomers.

Why exactly do they feel guilty?

24% of Gen Z respondents think that if they take all of their paid vacation, it could harm their reputation with coworkers or higher-ups. I thought back to my first job, and this feeling immediately resonated with me. I remember wondering if my boss or colleagues would think I’m lazy or not ambitious enough if I took my full two weeks off (they wouldn’t think either of these things, retrospectively!).

If you’re new to a job, the numbers are worse. The Priceline Work-Life Balance Report showed that “more than six in ten respondents said that they would wait a minimum of six months before feeling comfortable enough to take a vacation of any appreciable length, while 21% of respondents would wait at least an entire year.”

Maybe even sadder still, when young Americans do take time off, they don’t fully unplug from work. Priceline learned that 47% of Gen Z felt pressured to check their work email or phones while on vacation. 40% of millennials felt that way, too. 1 in 10 Gen Z say they are “constantly” checking in with work, and 16% check in “every few hours.”

As a manager now, there have been instances I’ve felt compelled to text an OOO employee to check their email for “something really quick,” I reasoned to myself. It’s admittedly difficult, especially if you’re a boss with a small, scrappy team. Or maybe there’s a certain employee you tend to rely on the most. But the fact is, we as managers should try to stop ourselves from reaching out to employees on vacation. It’s not like I personally enjoy responding to an email when I’m trying to get some quality pool time that I paid for—do you think they do?

Money also matters

If we’re not feeling like our reputation is at stake, then we’re worried about our bank accounts if we go on vacation. According to a 2019 study conducted by DepositAccounts, 55% of millennials say they didn’t take time off due to either not having the funds, or being worried about them. 74% of this group say that they wish they were able to save more money so they could go on vacation, while 37% claim they’ve actually gone into debt due to how much money they spent on their trip.

So…who or what is to blame?

Priceline found out that Gen Z is the generation most likely to believe that their company or boss actually expect them to be available on vacation. 36% of Gen Z claim this is the case. While it’s illegal to not let your employee take their vacation days, it’s not unheard of for managers to ask their employees that they “check in” even while they have their OOO auto-reply set up. Sometimes the employee who is going on vacation is the head of their department (or maybe the only person in the department) and their absence would make business nearly impossible. Or maybe the employee is taking a vacation in the middle of an important deal or campaign.

Regardless of the reason, obviously managers should be doing their best to let their employees unplug. There have been countless studies on how bad it is for your mental health when you’re constantly logged on, and how vacations are most likely going to help you live longer.

Besides burnout and a possible impact on mental health, how are young Americans affected by not taking time off?

First off, Priceline found that 21% of Gen Z say that they feel frustrated with their employer if they don’t use their vacation days.

Sadly, many young Americans also feel regret, too. According to the survey, 30% felt regret that they didn’t take enough spontaneous trips during the year.

While this problem isn’t going to solve itself anytime soon, if you need a reminder that you’re allowed (and deserve) to take your paid vacation, here it is. You are totally allowed and deserve to take your paid vacation (and not feel bad about it).