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Vacation Shame & Sick Day Guilt Are Very Real in the American Workplace

September 21, 2016

I came into the workforce at the front end of the millennial generation. This was years before the craze of the millennial worker and coping with this new type of employee was even a conversation to be had.  While I already see a stark difference between myself and the new wave of employees coming in a decade later, there is one thing we share that’s plagued me and I’m glad there is finally a term to describe it. It’s being referred to as ‘vacation shame’ and I can promise it’s a very real thing today.


As we shift into a work world that’s always connected with people working more flexible hours, things like taking personal time off for other appointments no longer means actually taking a day away from everything work related to get things done. Instead it means adjusting your work day to fit the other appointments in and just working later to make up the time or be present via email while in the waiting room at those appointments.

This is an interesting shift and it’s spreading into other “day off” scenarios too. Take vacation for example. That used to be a time to get away for you with family- a clear distinction between work and play. As we all know, that barely exists these days.

And what about sick time off? The guilt some workers feel about taking time away and leaving more work in the laps of their co-workers makes even resting from a legit ailment a problem.

An interesting new report from Project: Time Off  looks at how new workplace pressures are changing everything about the American workplace today and creating a worker so dedicated they are being referred to as a martyr.

This all started, the report claims, around 2000 when vacation days began to go unused. Then we hit an economic downturn and the job market became super competitive. Even though we’ve been able to bounce back as an economy since then, there has become an unsaid prioritization of work above anything else. 

The time off isn’t going unused because the employer is forbidding them to take the days, but because with all the work there is to do, and the ability to do it from anywhere – taking time off has become more a nuisance than an escape at all.

Worry over no option for someone to cover your work while you’re away or the dread that someone may do something wrong and jeopardize all you’ve worked for, are very real fears.

According to the report, “The Work Martyr’s Cautionary Tale: How the Millennial Work Experience Will Define America’s Vacation Culture,” millennials are the ones to blame for this shameful feeling because it’s become the norm to check your email from your phone and be responsive in real-time and even work later hours if needed.

Another article on this same report compared the findings to one done by Alamo Rent-a-Car which said co-workers themselves were fueling the fire by teasing and shaming those who did take their vacations. Whether this pressure lead to it or not, the study even found that many of those that were brave enough to brace the jesting and take their vacations, still worked while they were on those getaways.

What’s sad about the big picture is that these same workers who are devoting so much of their time in order to appear dedicated to their jobs, are actually the most unhappy. And we all know what stressed and unhappy employees will do to the business in the long run.

The time to recognize this shift is now. Implement plans to ensure your company remains understanding and sympathetic to what is best for overall employee morale and long term happiness. Doing things like reminding employees that they have vacation time and that it’s okay and that they should be taking those days off, is already a huge step in the right direction.

While employees should also make time for personal days and keep stress at bay, if issues still exist, there is always the option to look for a job where being a work martyr for your employer isn’t a requirement. 




Edited by Alicia Young

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