The benefits of taking vacation time are clear. As Allina Health explains, taking time off of work can lead to everything from a greater sense of employee well-being to increased mental motivation. It can even improve family relationships. “Studies have shown that taking time away from the job can have physical and mental health benefits,” the healthcare company explains. “People who take vacations have lower stress, less risk of heart disease, a better outlook on life, and more motivation to achieve goals.” It's easy to see how important time off is not just for the health of employees, but the health of the businesses they work for. Yet, 212 million vacation days are forfeited annually. If you’ve noticed workers at your company taking less and less time off or perhaps even no time at all, it’s important to ask if vacation shaming might be to blame. Never heard of vacation shaming? Maybe you’ve heard of the term, but you just are not sure what to do about it. Here’s a crash course in vacation shaming — what it is, how it works, and how to keep it at bay if it’s happening at your company.
There is no hard and fast definition for vacation shaming. But generally, vacation shaming sounds like exactly what it is. Vacation shaming is a term that’s used to describe workplaces where coworkers or bosses make workers feel, in one way or another, guilty for taking time off. Vacation shaming can be both direct and indirect. When vacation shaming is direct, it can take the form of quips or comments made to people who either request or actually take time off. Vacation shaming can happen if a coworker complains about the extra work they’ll have to do while you’re away. If someone threatens to tell higher-ups that you’ll be taking time off, adding that they won’t like to hear it, that’s vacation shaming. If your requests for time off are always denied, that’s a form of vacation shaming. When vacation shaming is indirect, it can take a number of forms as well. One form can be comments about how busy work is going to be and how people need to put in extra effort. Indirect vacation shaming can also look like rewards for people who work all the time and don’t take time off. Whether those rewards are simply verbal praise or, more often than not, promotions and accolades for dedication, the result is the same. You’re telling your employees that the only way to succeed is to work constantly and, therefore, never take time off.
If you’ve come to realize that vacation shaming is happening at your company, don’t despair. You do have a problem on your hands for sure, but there are plenty of things you can do to fix it. Some solutions take more time to implement than others. But some of these suggestions can be acted on immediately, which means that you can start making changes today!
If vacation shaming is happening at your company, chances are it’s a cultural thing. Even at companies with high demands, workers aren’t immune to burnout.
Encourage employees to fully disconnect when they’re not at work and especially when they’re on vacation.
One thing you can do is to circulate information and research about burnout — what it is and how it can be kept at bay by taking time off. Another important element to the culture shift approach is encouraging employees to fully disconnect when they’re not at work and especially when they’re on vacation. Finally, don’t reward people for being workaholics. If you’re constantly giving accolades to and promoting people who work all the time, it’s going to be hard for anyone who actually takes vacation time to get ahead.
If people are being made to work more every time someone takes a vacation, it’s no wonder why vacation shaming is happening. It’s actually even understandable that people would resent having to stay behind and handle extra work. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. The way to work around this cause for vacation shaming is to come up with effective systems for handling people’s work while they’re on vacation. Not only does this make things easier for their teammates, but it reduces the chances that a mountain of work will be waiting for your employees when they come back from vacation. We’ve all been there, physically on vacation but mentally thinking about all of the work that’s waiting for you when you return — all of the work that will take you weeks to get caught up on. The thought alone is enough for people to eschew time off.
One way to tackle vacation shaming head-on is to explicitly ban it with a policy. It can be its own new policy that outlines how vacations take place and what is and isn’t accepted behavior around vacations. The policy could also be an addition to your existing vacation policy. It can be as simple and direct as something like, “Vacation shaming will not be tolerated at this company. We expect our employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance and taking vacation is a critical part of that equation.”
It’s going to be nearly impossible to combat vacation shaming if it’s coming from the top down. Make sure that your company’s leadership knows that vacations are not only allowed but encouraged. Make it clear to them that their behavior and comments to their team members must be in line with this ethos at all times. If they catch vacation shaming happening on their team, make it clear to them that the expectation is that they nip it in the bud as soon as possible. Once vacation shaming goes on unchecked, it can quickly spread like wildfire through a workplace. It’s far easier to stop vacation shaming before it starts rather than reign it in after it’s become ingrained.
The thing with vacation shaming is that it’s very likely a unique response to the unique situation that your company is in. It might be happening because work has been super busy lately. It could be happening because you’ve been understaffed since the pandemic. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to combating vacation shaming because there’s not 1 simple reason for its existence. If you’re not sure what’s causing it, it’s time to figure it out. One thing you can do is have open and honest conversations with your employees. You could also consider conducting an anonymous employee survey. That way, your workers feel freer to share exactly what they think and experience. Another route could be asking managers to collect information from their teams. That method could work if your employees are more likely to open up to immediate leadership. Regardless of the method, the goal is to understand what exactly is causing vacation shaming so you can address the problem at the source. Remember that change happens slowly. However, summer is a great time to get started and the 4th of July — a popular holiday weekend — is right around the corner.