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Reshaping workplace norms: How to handle vacation-shamers

According to a recent survey, just 40 percent of employees feel like they have bosses who respect their time off. 
Pink inflatable Flamingo on the beach
Taking a vacation is not a luxury — it’s a necessity.Elena Kalfa / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Finding a good work-life mix can be particularly challenging for ambitious and accomplished people in the workforce — and those who shame co-workers for using Paid Time Off (PTO) don’t make it any easier! They may raise eyebrows, make snide comments, or question your commitment to your career when you dare to step away for a well-deserved vacation.

Last October, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, released the Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being. The survey findings aligned with that of the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America Survey:

Most workers (77 percent) experience job-related stress, and 57 percent feel burnt out (emotional exhaustion, unmotivated, introverted, desire to quit, decreased productivity, irritability, and low self-esteem) because of that pressure.

Still, only one-third of survey participants reported working for an employer who encourages taking breaks, 40 percent have employers who respect time off, and 29 percent have managers who urge employees to take care of their mental health.

It’s disheartening to acknowledge that even in the aftermath of a global pandemic, there are still people around the office who glorify overwork and make you feel guilty for having a life outside your job. Contrary to their belief, taking a vacation is not a luxury — it’s a necessity.

According to Mental Health America:

Employers who offer PTO support the overall mental health of their staff, and employees who use PTO can help reduce burnout and increase productivity and creativity. However, the positive impact of time away from work only occurs if employees actually use their PTO.

With that in mind, I’d like to share some tips for dealing with co-workers who try to shame you for taking that much-deserved vacation — or even just a day off in the middle of the week.

How to Respond to Vacation Shaming

Here are five things co-workers who engage in various forms of vacation shaming and workaholic attitudes often say and do — and how you can respond whether or not the comment is targeted at you!

The situation: A co-worker says to you, “Did you see? Mary took the day off again.”

How to respond: Address the situation with confidence and assertiveness. When they look for a negative reaction from you, keep your response positive and matter of fact. You might explain how taking time off contributes to well-being and overall effectiveness at work.

“I for one am thrilled to see Mary using a benefit she’s rightly earned. Not only is that going to help her be her best, Mary’s being a good role model for others.”

The situation: A co-worker brags about never taking PTO, saying “What’s vacation time again? I’ve only taken two days off over the last two years!”

How to respond: You might acknowledge their work ethic before gently emphasizing the benefits of taking time off. Encourage them to consider the potential positive impact on their well-being and productivity.

“You’re certainly dedicated, Rick. I’ve found that taking some regular time off actually helps me come back even more focused and energized. Have you ever considered giving it a try?”

The situation: You have a boss who expects people to be available while on vacation.  He/she says: “You’re going to be checking email while you’re on vacation, right?”

How to respond: Set clear boundaries as you’re preparing to take time off. Communicate your unavailability and redirect them to the appropriate colleague for urgent matters. Offer an alternative solution or timeline for non-urgent requests. Strongly discourage it when people attempt to call others who might be out on vacation.

“I’ll be on vacation starting tomorrow, and I won’t be reachable until [date]. For any urgent matters, please contact [colleague’s name].”

The situation:  You overhear a colleague glorifying workaholism and overworking: “John pulled another all-nighter — he is really going the extra mile!”

How to respond: Share your perspective on the importance of work-life balance and your concerns about the downsides of overworking or the normalization of it. Highlight the value of practices that sustain us — like not centering work above all else, spending quality time on relationships, staying physically strong, and getting enough sleep.

“I appreciate his dedication to his job. I’m concerned when we hold John up as an example though, we’re encouraging everyone to work excessive hours like him. Let’s also make a point to celebrate the people that do great work but have good boundaries in place — like leaving at 5pm without apology.”

The situation: You have a co-worker who makes people feel guilty for the frequency of their PTO: “Uhh, didn’t you just take time off?”

How to respond: This is an excellent opportunity to establish a boundary with a nosy co-worker. You earned the benefit of time off and you should no sooner give it up than you would give up your paycheck. Talk to a supervisor or HR if this behavior persists and makes you uncomfortable.

“Taking PTO is part of the benefits package here, and it’s part of my ongoing practice to use it. I don’t need to justify using it.”

While addressing these situations, encourage open dialogue and where you can, seek common ground whenever possible. You’re going to feel more empowered about using — and benefitting from — your own time off. And as a bonus, you’ll help shift attitudes toward a healthier, more balanced work environment for everyone.