The Out-of-Office Blues

Why is it so hard to take time off work?

Photo collage of a person typing on a laptop while lying on their back on a beach that's set in an office environment.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by grinvalds/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Thinkstock.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

With summer in full swing, lots of American workers are taking vacations—or at least trying to. Not every workplace makes it easy to get away. As a result, some people don’t take the full amount of vacation they’re entitled to, end up working through their “vacations,” or worry that their managers frown on the time off.

This is a ridiculous state of affairs. When paid vacation time is part of your benefits, letting some of it go unused is like taking money out of your paycheck and handing it back to your employer. Plus, vacations are good for businesses too; employees come back refreshed and rested, and are generally more productive once they return.

But too often, employees are made to feel like there’s no good time for them to get away. They worry that they can’t leave because there’s no one to cover their work or that projects will pile up, requiring too much work and stress to catch up once they’re back, as this person who wrote me pointed out:

How does one responsibly actually take some time off? I haven’t had a holiday in nearly two years for this exact reason, that every time I try, there always seems to be more work or responsibilities that only I can attend to that can’t be put on hold even for a weekend. How does a responsible employee in a management position get away for a break?

Some offices deal with this by expecting people to remain available for work while they’re away:

I recently moved from a nonprofit to a Fortune 50 company and I could use some perspective on an issue I’ve encountered: my team sort of … ignores vacations. There’s an expectation that people will be available for calls and on email even when on vacation. This applies to both pressing, urgent problems requiring CEO engagement, as well as routine calls and issues which don’t have to be addressed immediately. It’s basically team culture, both with our director asking people to engage while on vacation, as well as people just calling in on non-urgent meetings, etc.

This is so prevalent that some people deal with it by finding vacations where they literally can’t be reached:

I love vacations with no cell coverage and as someone early pointed out it’s not hard to do in the Western part of the U.S. Doesn’t have to be camping either—rental cabins in the woods, off the grid resorts with no cell coverage, silent yoga retreats (you literally won’t be able to talk for a week!) or road tripping through remote areas (dirt roads around the North rim of the Grand Canyon = no cell coverage for meetings, bummer).

Even offices that don’t expect people to work through their vacations can make it difficult for people to get away in the first place, discouraging workers from taking time off when work is “busy” or requiring them to have a “good enough” reason to justify the time away:

I play a video game competitively in my free time, and my team was very excited to qualify for an upcoming competition! It is the first time we have qualified, and we are all thrilled. The tournament will take place in a couple months on a Friday. I went to my boss today to request that Friday off. He seemed pleasant enough about it at first and did not give any indication it would be a problem. … He asked if I had something planned for the day in what seemed to be a nonchalant, small-talk way, so I told him that my team and I had qualified for a “sports competition.” He was interested in this and pressed me for what sport, and I told him it was a video game. At this point, he snapped and became very unpleasant. He was angry and was saying that he doesn’t give time off so people can “sit on their butt and play video games all day.” Despite my protests that this is not what I was doing, he ultimately … refused to grant my time off.

I am very angry about this. I was so excited to qualify for this tournament and I want to go desperately. My manager’s response seems out of line to me. From my point of view, my time off is for me to spend as [I] wish. I think this is a valid reason to take time off, but ultimately if I wanted to sit at my house and play games recreationally all day, isn’t it my right to take time to do that as long as there is not any conflict at work?

Employers need to treat accrued vacation time like any other compensation they owe employees and make it as easy as possible for workers to take that time off. Of course, there may be occasional, legitimate conflicts with the dates an employee wants to take off, but then a manager’s stance should be “let’s figure out a time that will work,” not “too bad, can’t happen.”

The difficulties some employers put in place around vacation time are even more egregious when you consider that many states don’t require companies to pay out remaining vacation time when an employee leaves—making the time off that they earned truly use-it-or-lose-it.

On the employee end of things, we need to be better about insisting on taking all the time off we have coming to us. If you’re in a job where it seems like there’s never a good time to be away, stop waiting for the right time, which may never come, and just make plans. Even if you don’t have the time, money, or inclination to travel, there’s real value in taking a week off to stay at home, binge-watch Netflix, and clean the garage—and consider telling colleagues you’ll likely be out of cell range most of the time and won’t be checking email or answering calls. A vacation isn’t a vacation if you stay electronically tethered to your office.