Have you ever felt guilty about taking your (hard-earned) sick or vacation days? If so, you aren’t alone. According to a recent Zippia survey of 214 job seekers, 61.3 percent of Americans feel guilty about taking time off work and women are 20 percent more likely to feel guilty about taking time off work than men.
Even though paid time off (PTO) is an integral part of our benefits, why is it so hard to walk away from work?
In my corporate career as a management consultant, I remember feeling a wave of apprehension every time I took a day off. I remember going to lengths to explain the time off I was taking to my boss to prove it was valid. I also remember feeling pressure to use it extremely sparingly. Last year I shared my experience on TikTok, and it went viral.
For women in particular, it’s often difficult to shake the anxiety that comes with enjoying time with your family on vacation or taking a long weekend to “do you.” Not only do workplace dynamics contribute to this pattern, but for women shouldering the majority of caretaking responsibilities, a working mother’s vacation time is often a shared asset – used for family needs like kids’ doctor appointments, attendance at school events and emergencies.
Now, it’s totally understandable to want to keep a cushion of time for the unexpected. As a mom to 10-year-old twins, I can especially empathize with wanting to save time for sick kids and other stressful things that come up. And there are some people who simply don’t have the privilege to just ask for time off.
But one common perception in the U.S. is that time off needs to be earned, deserved, and sacrificed for. Rather than seeing it like a preventative, beneficial “vitamin” we take regularly, we see it a little more like a “painkiller,” taken as a result of grinding hard. Yes, dedication and hard work are things to be proud of, but studies show when we take time off regularly, we have better health, stamina and engagement at work. And we actually perform better and work harder! So, what gives?
A Norm of Gender Bias in the Workplace
Although conversations about diversity and inclusion have increased, the fight to be seen as equal to our male counterparts hasn’t ended. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2022 survey, women are “more likely to experience belittling microaggressions, such as having their judgment questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior.”
Furthermore, sociologists Elizabeth Gorman of the University of Virginia and Julie Kmec of Washington State University recently conducted a study to explore how women feel they need to work harder than their male counterparts.
"Even when women and men are matched on extensive measures of job characteristics, family and household responsibilities, and individual qualifications, women report that their jobs require more effort than men do," Gorman said. “Between a man and a woman who hold the same job, shoulder the same burdens at home and have the same education and skills, the woman is likely to feel she must work harder.”
In short, women feel they must prove themselves for leaders to see them as competent. No wonder it’s hard to step away from work when your commitment and competence are openly questioned.
Gorman and Kmec searched for a reason behind this perceived expectation. One hypothesis was related to domestic responsibilities – did women feel it was harder to keep up at work because they already exert so much energy at home? Not necessarily, according to the sociologists:
"Marriage and parenthood had the same effect on reports of required effort for women and men. In the U.S. sample, the researchers were able to match workers on the number of hours they spent on childcare and housework. Between men and women who performed the same amount of child care and housework, women were still more likely to say their jobs required them to work very hard."
Gorman and Kmec eventually concluded that women feel the need to work hard because they simply don’t get as much credit as men do:
“We know that people give lower marks to an essay, a painting or a résumé when it has a woman’s name on it,” Gorman said. “And when a man and a woman work together on a project, people assume the man contributed more than the woman did. Even when a woman’s work is indisputably excellent, people don’t believe she’s good—they think she got lucky. In light of this previous research, it makes sense to conclude that women have to work harder to win their bosses’ approval.”
PTO guilt is real
Women already do back flips to work hard for their boss’ approval and fair compensation; we shouldn’t also feel the need to convince ourselves that we deserve to take time off. The real responsibility is on employers to make women feel empowered and supported at work, whether we’re on or off the clock. That means de-stigmatizing use of vacation and sick time and encouraging leaders and managers to “leave loudly” - whether it’s at the end of the workday or for a weeklong vacation where they fully unplug.
As better practices take root, I hope you’ll take this as a nudge – a reminder – that you work hard for your paycheck and benefits – you deserve to use them however you see fit, and you should.
Maximize scant PTO to its full potential
If you don’t have a lot of PTO to work with, I recommend employing the piggyback technique of taking just one day off during an already short week, such as when it’s a federal holiday, as the additional day gives you a longer period off and a shorter workweek to look forward to. I like to spread these days off periodically throughout the year so I always have some time off to count on.
As the new year rolls around, you might start planning your vacation days for the first half of the year. Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you get the most out of your limited PTO.
NOTE: Your company’s holidays may vary. These are holidays observed by the U.S. Federal government:
- MLK Day (Monday, 1/16) – Take off Friday 1/13, or Tuesday 1/17 for a four-day weekend.
- Presidents Day (Monday, 2/20) – Take off Friday 2/17, or Tuesday 2/21 for a four-day weekend.
- Memorial Day (Monday, 5/29) – Take off Friday 5/26, or Tuesday 5/30 for a four-day weekend.
- Juneteenth National Independence Day (Monday, 6/19) – Take off Friday 6/16, or Tuesday 6/20 for a four-day weekend.
- Fourth of July (Tuesday, 7/4) – Take off Friday 6/30, AND Monday 7/3 for a five-day weekend!
Claim your time off and enjoy it
Look, no one else will set boundaries for you. No one else will value your time - or mental and physical health - like you can. While some people argue there’s a literal payoff to cashing out your PTO when you leave a job, by the time taxes are taken out (and by running the risk of being burned out), I’d argue that PTO would have been better spent being taken throughout the year. Plus, only about half of the 50 states have statutes that actually require companies to pay out employees' unused PTO when the employment relationship ends.
The benefits of taking time off are real: in the quality of your work and ideas, the vigor you bring to your personal and professional lives, and your resilience for the not-so-great times. Now’s the time to be the Chief Negotiator of your time, your rest, and your wellness. The future you will thank you.