Glassdoor released statistics at the end of May confirming Americans really, truly aren’t taking their vacation days. The average U.S. employee only used 54 percent of their paid time off in the last year, and 66 percent of Americans are working during their vacations, but I didn’t need a study to tell me that.
What did surprise me were the results of another study recently conducted by Project: Time Off, which found that gender has an impact on the likelihood of an employee choosing to take all of his or her vacation days. According to the study, there was an increase in millennial men’s willingness to take time off, with 51 percent saying they’d used all their vacation days, a seven percent increase from last year. Millennial women’s willingness to take vacation, however, saw a decrease: 44 percent said they’d taken full advantage of their benefit, down from 46 percent last year.
“Millennial women tend to have more pronounced guilt and feel they don’t want to burden people with their time away,” said Katie Denis, the lead researcher for Project: Time Off. “They’re more likely to identify with that ‘work martyr’ brand of thinking.”
The topic of unused vacation days is not a new one in the media, but I’ve found that what’s missing from the conversation is first-hand insight from the people to which the statistics are referring — in this case, millennial women. Where is the “work martyr” culture coming from, and why is it more prevalent than ever? If there are other factors at stake, what are they?
I decided to go straight to the source. I posted a poll on Instagram asking women to DM me if they either weren’t taking all their vacation days or weren’t fully unplugging when they did. Messages flooded my inbox.
Guilt was a common theme across responses, especially in terms of inconveniencing other coworkers. “There’s not very much redundancy where I work, and I manage my team’s interns, so I feel like I need to answer email when I’m out,” said Jessica, a 26-year-old nonprofit fundraiser working in D.C. “Otherwise I’d be a bottleneck and my interns would get confused. Every time I’ve taken PTO, I’ve come back to piles of mission-critical work that wasn’t addressed while I was out because no one else knows how to do it.”
Diane, a 25-year-old working in digital marketing in Colorado, expressed similar concerns:
“My job is extremely intense and involved (I manage social media accounts and social engagement for 60+ clients), so leaving for more than two days puts a serious strain on my other coworkers.” Diane hates that she’s turned into one of “those people.” She doesn’t want to be constantly working, but hasn’t figured how to break that habit without guilt. “I mean, my parents are here visiting this week and I couldn’t take any time off to be with them. When I do have a day off, I have to ask my husband to hide my cell phone because I can’t stop myself from checking emails.”
Ditto for 26-year-old Shelly, who works in healthcare in Houston:
“I can’t leave my work for too long without it affecting my co-workers or affecting our bottom line. I feel guilty if I take time off because I am not finishing my projects and because my work will fall on someone else. I don’t want people to see me as a slacker. Taking vacation also seems to create more stress and work for my managers.” She said she doesn’t want to cause problems or be singled out for poor attendance.
Anxiety around upsetting a manager was another widely-mentioned reason, seemingly because managers either aren’t taking vacations themselves or aren’t encouraging their subordinates to do so.
“Taking a vacation would just result in more judgment from older people I work with who believe being chained to your desk equates to working hard,” said Phoebe, a 23-year-old working in product design and trend-forecasting in Minneapolis.
Sometimes the expectations from upper management can be even more extreme: “My decision not to take off a full week in three years was due to pressure from people senior to me — women, specifically,” said Amanda, a 25-year-old investment banker working in New York City. “I definitely feel like there is extra pressure because there are so few women in banking relative to men.”
Lois, a 31-year-old working in ad/tech software in New York City said the same about her male-dominated industry:
“I feel like if I take more than a week off I will become irrelevant. I think this reaction stems from the fact that I am a woman in the tech world, and fear that if I [take time off] they would see they could manage without me.” She cited another women on her team who, while away for three weeks to be with family, is still working 30 hours a week despite being on PTO. Lois suspects she feels the same pressure. “There is such a badge of honor in this tech culture around working late, grinding, hustling, blah, blah, blah.”
One of the most interesting responses to my query came from Emily, a 29-year-old social media manager who is originally from London but now works in Connecticut for a retail company:
>“I have been working in the U.S.A. for four years now, and it’s been a big culture shock in terms of vacation policy. In London, I had 25 vacation days plus a day off for my birthday. Not only was it required to request time off, but managers actually encouraged it. It was perfectly acceptable to take two to three weeks off at a time… I once took off two weeks from my current job in the U.S. to visit my home in England, and upon returning to work I was immediately told, ‘You have no idea how much you’ve missed, I don’t even know where to begin to fill you in.’ What a welcome back!” Apparently her coworkers had expected her to check email, a concept she’d never considered. “In England, you put your out of office on and you switch off work mode entirely — it’s a vacation!”
I realize all of this is a bit bleak, and I’m not sure what the solution is, but I can pass along some advice from Man Repeller’s very own Matt Little, who in addition to being a Kesha enthusiast and our Director of Business Operations, is a human resources aficionado:
1. Recognize your agency.
Just like life relationships, work relationships require boundaries. The worth you have as an employee shouldn’t be discounted.
It might seem counterintuitive to think of guilt as an asset, but let it motivate you to do thorough prep work before a vacation so as to lessen the slack that your coworkers have to pick up (and your own need to be available for questions). Put together an out-of-office plan detailing everything that needs to be done while you’re out and who is “running point” on each of your daily responsibilities.
3. Manage expectations.
Ahead of your vacation, talk to your manager about your planned availability. Will you be checking email? Will you respond to texts if it’s an “emergency?” Once you set those expectations, stick to them. If you and your manager agree you’re going to be totally unreachable for the week, don’t respond to any emails. Even if you have downtime in the airport and it’s something quick, it’s important you stick to your plans just as you expect your manager to as well.
4. Take comfort in the fact that your company almost definitely can (and will!) run without you.
Just like you were surviving before this job, the company was a company before you joined and will continue to run while you enjoy your time off. Defending your vacation isn’t personal, it’s business. Employers should ultimately recognize that balanced employees are the best employees, just like balanced breakfasts are the best breakfasts (sorry — had to).
Photos by Edith Young.