In fall-2007, I started working for an accounting firm that touted its exceptional benefits plan to potential employees. These benefits included mandatory vacation time over Christmas.
They were a new company in Canada and were rapidly rising through the ranks as a top Canadian start-up. This was 2007 and this company seemed very generous compared to many of the organizations that I’d worked for in the past.
I’d recently left a small, family-owned web development company that had few employee benefits but did give everyone “turkey money” at Christmas to ensure that all employees had food on the table for the holidays. They handed this out as they guided people to the door with a hearty, “don’t work over the holiday break.”
At the accounting firm, as we got closer to the Christmas period, employees and management started to subtly shame anyone who wanted to take time off over the holidays. They kept mentioning that “we are a start-up” and because of market uncertainty we “need to put in the extra effort to ensure our success.”
To add to the guilt, executives did not take a bonus that year. Instead, they gave money to employees who did not use their vacation time over the holidays. The amount was roughly the equivalent of the turkey money given to people at my previous company.
We were never explicitly told that we had to give up our vacation time (because that’s illegal in Canada); the choice had to be ours. However, the guilt laid upon employees influenced people’s decisions to work (including me) even when we had banked time that we’d lose on January 1.
This was a hard decision to make because I had a family, but I didn’t want to be “the only person” who refused to work when everyone else put in the extra mile.
As I sat at my desk over the Christmas break, wrapped in a blanket because building custodians had turned the heat down, I realized that we were doing work for companies where people got 6-figure bonuses for Christmas.
I assumed that none of these clients were checking their “financials” over the holidays because they were probably sunning in Barbados, fishing off the coast of Africa, or climbing Machu Picchu with their families.
I checked stats, just to validate my assumption, and saw that *indeed* no one was visiting the platform. There was no need for anyone at the accounting firm to work over the holidays.
This was my first experience with vacation shaming and I quickly realized that this was an endemic problem at this company.
What is Vacation Shaming?
Vacation shaming is when you are made to feel guilty for taking allotted time off work. Guilt can come from employers, co-workers, or even yourself. It doesn’t help that the “heroic workaholic” who works 24/7 is seen to thrive in TV shows and movies.
In a recent study conducted by research firm Maru/Blue Voice Canada for Skyscanner (yes… the largest travel company in China), half of Canadians have experienced “vacation shaming” at some point in their career.
In the study, Maru/Blue discovered that 98% of the Canadians and Americans polled indicated that their vacation time was important, but only 66% of employees take the time that they’re owed.
Below I’ll dig into this and call out three behaviours that I commonly see in workplaces that influence people’s decisions to skip or shorten their earned vacation time.
Your boss or teammate works during their vacation
You all know these people: they take a vacation but show up on every video call or respond to every single email or Slack thread even when they are sipping Mai Tais on the beach.
This behaviour sends the following messages: “I work on my vacation because I can’t let go,” and “I achieved my position because I’m willing to put in the extra mile.”
According to the Maru/Blue study mentioned above, the main reasons people find it difficult to take time off is because they don’t want to fall behind the rest of their team.
Your boss or co-worker contacts you when you are on vacation
Ok… you forgot to hand over the key to the server room or the cabinet that holds materials that your team needs to do their job. That should have been planned better… plus: why is there only one key?
But, for those of us who work in non-life-impacting jobs… when a boss or co-worker contacts you while you are on vacation, the message is clear: your planned time off is not important. This creates anxiety for those who are on vacation.
Packing in the meetings before you leave
I recently participated in meditation training with a nurse who arrived on the first day completely frazzled.
For the first few hours, she had difficulty disconnecting from her work because, in the days and moments leading up to this training, people were hounding her to attend meetings and pass along “crucial” information that she’d already shared, documented, and deligated in the weeks before her absence.
This behaviour sends the message that taking a vacation will somehow cause everyone else inconvenience, anxiety or stress.
It’s time to rethink how we look at vacation time
Vacation shaming is an indicator of a larger problem. It tells me that companies are not supporting employee mental health.
Studies show that people who are encouraged by employers to take vacation time are better able to disconnect and come back refreshed. But, this isn’t because people can take a break, it’s because these companies have better access to mental health resources and recognize the value that employees receive from taking time off. [source]
Companies need to support and encourage people to take breaks from work as part of a broader mental health and wellbeing initiative.
I feel that many of the behaviours above stem from anxiety and fear: anxiety that you’ll be left behind, fear that you’ll lose your job while you are away, anxiety over money, fear that people won’t return after their vacation, or a generalized feeling that things will fall apart.
These are all worries that can be addressed through well-structured mental health support. If they are not addressed, employees will begin to develop chronic anxiety, burn out, and start looking for new job opportunities.
Remember my example above? The one from the start-up that made people felt so guilty that they worked during their Christmas break?
Working over the holidays was a trigger that I began to examine closely. And, soon after the holidays, I started working with a recruiter who helped me find a fantastic job with an employer that saw value in mental health benefits: including honouring vacation time.