Vacation Guilt and What to Do About It

One of the main questions we ask when we get a new job is about the benefits and how much vacation/personal/PTO time we get. It can be a deciding, limiting, or competitive factor. Vacation time gives us the hopes of getting away and motivates us through the toughest days.

Generally, you’ll either earn vacation as you go at a certain amount per month, or get a big deposit of days on January 1. Some companies give more time off but call it Personal Time Off (PTO) and consider it a big pot of time-off stew for sick days and vacation days.

I ask you this honestly – raise your hand if you’ve ever not used all your vacation or PTO days.

There are usually two types of people in a workplace, and specially I can speak to local newsrooms. The people who will use every last second of their time, sick days et all, or those who use what they can when they can, and lose a certain amount at the end of the year.

Vacation Time Does Not Define Your Work/Life Balance

If your personal time off is where you balance work and life, you’re doing it wrong. I did it wrong. I used most of my vacations to do doctor’s appointments, deep home cleaning, organizing clothing, running errands I never got to do in the hustle culture of a newsroom.

I rarely actually went anywhere. My “vacations” mostly prepared me for the vacation I actually needed.

As time wore on in my career, I went from missing work so much during vacation I couldn’t wait to get back to dreading the last day of vacation because it meant I had to go back. It meant the clutter piled up again, it meant grocery shopping against the clock on a Saturday because inevitable a sick call, breaking news story, or technical issue was going to ruin my day, it meant a morning doctor’s appointment meant a night of work or a forced cancellation for a meeting that could have been an email.

What I’ve learned now is that the work life balance is defined in how you operate when you aren’t on vacation. It’s how you prioritize your personal needs vs. professional ones. Of all the fitness activities I’ve tried, yoga was by far the best choice because I could not, under any circumstances, have my phone on me. It was a free hour of bliss all about me (and avoiding passing out in a room heated to 120°F).

You have to find your work life balance before you even consider what your vacation is going to entail.

Plan Out What You Can

When you do think about time off, get the requests in early. I always took the week of my birthday off. I knew January 1 I could submit for the second week in September. I knew I wanted the summer holidays off more than the winter ones. I knew I generally needed a break around late May (that damn May ratings book was always a bitch).

The better you plan ahead, while still saving some days for impromptu getaways, the more you’ll have milestones to look forward to in your life.

Get It In Writing

I did work schedules for many years. I knew by heart every employee and how much time they had off. I knew their patterns for calling in sick. I knew when they really had an emergency and when they needed a mental health break.

I’d make all kinds of deals with people to cover staffing shortages and I documented them all, for me and for them.

I can’t tell you this enough – If it’s not in writing it didn’t happen. Louder for the people in the back.


– Me

Each company handles holidays differently. If you are hourly, you might get holiday pay for working the holiday, your might get an additional day off, you might get both. Salaried employees get an extra day off for working a holiday, and generally there is no clear cut rule of when to take that. Some timesheet systems can’t even track that as it’s seemingly unfathomable to it that someone would actually work a holiday.

Document. Document. Document.

I’ve had jobs where I couldn’t take a single holiday off, and as soon as I tried breaking news would happen. Verbally, I was told by bosses “Just take it whenever.”

Let me tell you, when you are heading out the door they won’t remember or care about that holiday worked. Use the holiday before you use a vacation day.

Several times in my career I’ve had to work 7 day workweeks for months on end. I was promised “free” time off afterward to partially make up for it.

It wasn’t in writing.

It didn’t happen.


When you realize you are in a dangerous game of trust and you have to pay the pauper first by working yourself to death, you are a sucker.

My advice is this, if anyone ever says “You’ve been working a lot lately. I want you to take some time off and keep it off the books” ask them to put it in writing. If they won’t, they are lying to you. Or they are making a promise they can’t keep. If there is ever a reason someone won’t put something in writing, then the reason is scandalous.

On top of that, a verbal promise from a boss is only worth their life span at work. What if your boss leaves? I once had two sports people tell me they were promised to get the Sports Director title from the previous News Director. Was it in writing? Nope. Didn’t happen. And I didn’t want that, so now there’s nothing but verbal vapor and sports guys pissed off at me for something I had nothing to do with.

If you don’t have a good system for keeping track of extra days or hours worked at the office, do it on your own. It can save you in the end to get your rightfully earned time off. There’s something infuriating about a boss who works about 15 hours a week total, but then gives you grief for wanting to take a day off when they want to have a meeting that they’ll end up cancelling anyway.

The Carry Over Chaos

Another infuriating element of vacation is that a workplace will load you up with so many big projects, extra hours, odd shifts, and bomb-dropping meetings on a Sunday that uprooted your weekend plans, yet will be demandingly rude about you wanting to carry over vacation time they never allowed you to use.

Employers, give your people their time off. If you make it so they can’t take it, then let them carry it over or pay them out for it. You have an employee so dedicated they didn’t leave you high and dry throughout the year, yet you are going to berate them for wanting what is coming to them?

In the spirit of “Office Space” and “TPS reports”, I once worked at a place where I had to carry over time, which was allowed under the company policy. It was “frowned upon” but understood in unique circumstances. Trying to fight for my right to this time and a handful of other people impacted was like fighting a war. It took me 7 months into the year to get this documented and make things right. I wanted to do it up on the up and up, and my boss just wanted me to keep it on the down low.

I was so right to fight for that time because it was just a rouse to make us lose the time we earned. From every hierarchy level possible, I was repeatedly reminded that it can’t happen again, like it was my fault. I said it shouldn’t happen again and the company should have a better staffing plan. The onus was on them, not me.

Get it in writing. Consígalo por escrito. Obtenez-le par écrit. Получите это в письменной форме.

When You Take Time Off, TAKE TIME OFF

Let you boss, colleagues, friends, cleaning lady, etc. know you are actually unplugging. No quick “just one second” calls. No “I know you are vacation but..” texts. Make your boundaries clear. You are not available. Every vacation should be treated like you are deep-sea diving in Bora Bora and can’t come to the phone. Resist the urge to respond to someone or have a pre-formatted text of “I am on vacation and will address this topic when I am back in the office.”

I would also hide my email from myself on my phone. I’d put it on some random folder in the back page of my phone so I couldn’t see the work piling up. The amount of time I got roped into working half days from responding to anything during vacation made me a hard and fast “Leave me alone barring major breaking news and even then think twice.”

One day I was buying a new car. It was so exciting and had been a helluva process to get it. I got a text from my boss’s boss telling me how terrible a process was at the workplace and how disappointed he was. Then told me to have a good day off. How in the hell was that supposed to happen now?

Most Employers Are a One-Way Street

I’ve had great bosses who made sure I took time off when I was getting burned out. I’ve had bosses who when they said “Take whatever time you need and don’t write it down” and I knew they meant it. They are few and far between.

For the most part, you are going to give more than you get, especially as a salaried employee. At one point I figured out the hours I worked per week and compared it to hourly wages of my colleagues. I wasn’t making as much as some of them when you did the math that way.

I still got grief when I needed to take a day off for grief. I still had to come to a work meeting the day of a medical procedure, hospital armband and all with an Uber waiting outside because I couldn’t drive. I still was forced to come in on a holiday just to oversee Christmas decorations installed on the set and the decorator never showed. Then I got grief for wanting to use that holiday another day. Then I was almost forced to use a vacation day for it. One. Way. Street.

The only defender of your personal time off is you. Nobody else cares. I beg you, don’t waste your earned time off out of a sense of obligation or guilt. You are a better you when you take vacation.

You are best when you work that balance into your life outside of vacation time.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply