I feel overwhelming guilt about taking time off work — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I genuinely don’t understand how folks deal with the overwhelming guilt of taking time off work. I’ve had this problem since I started working right out of college, and it’s persisted through multiple job and industry changes and multiple PTO policies — from seven days to unlimited — in my over 15 years of work. During Covid, my workplace was understaffed and very strict with travel and PTO, and I felt too guilty to leave even when my grandparents were dying from Covid or when my best friend wanted me to be maid of honor at her wedding. I will never get those experiences back, and I made that sacrifice for a retail job I hated — I had no passion for it, I was a very small cog in the wheel, and I quit as soon as I found something else! (Thankfully, I’m at a job I love now, largely due to your advice.)

As much as I regret every day missing those experiences, the guilt of missing work is so strong that I still find it incredibly hard to take time off even for huge life events or catastrophes, and I delay small things as much as possible to try to stave off some of the guilt. For example, my doctors want me to have surgery that I know would vastly improve my quality of life, but I feel so guilty about taking time off I’ve put it off for over a year. When I do take time off — like my honeymoon last year — I wake up every day with tears in my eyes from guilt and feel sick to my stomach from not working.

I’ve never returned to a work crisis; at every job, there have been people to cover for me. But I can’t stop feeling incredibly guilty for missing work. My parents always say it’s a normal part of having a job, but I don’t want to spend my whole life feeling this guilty all the time. I have never come back to work “relaxed” or “refreshed,” and I’m currently dealing with some burnout because of it. I know I need time off, but I don’t want to spend it feeling worse than I currently do due to the guilt.

I wrote back and asked, “If you had to break the guilt down, what do you feel guilty over exactly? Be as specific as you can — it will help us sort through this.”

It was tough to boil it down, but I know I wouldn’t be able to afford to live if I didn’t have a job. And I don’t just mean fun things like trips and hobbies, I wouldn’t be able to afford food, housing, or other basic necessities. Any time I’m not working during work hours, I feel extremely guilty for taking advantage of my company. I know it’s part of my compensation — just like the money I need to live, but I also know no one would ever complain if I didn’t take any days off (especially since we have a no minimum “unlimited” days off policy). And I definitely hear folks complain about people who take too much time off (and those people are always first on the list for layoffs!).

I’m 1000% more relaxed in the evenings after work or on the weekends than I ever am on a vacation. I know that I put in enough work to have earned my weekends/evenings off, but I’m not able to complete enough work to ever feel like I’ve earned a full day off, much less a week. I feel like if I was just able to do two weeks of work in one, I could take a week off guilt-free without passing all my unfinished stuff to my team. It typically takes two people to fill in for me while I’m out, one of which has to be pulled off of his regular duties completely, so I know me being gone is costly for the company. If I cost too much, take too much time off, or become too inconvenient, why keep me on?

I’m not just feeling guilty for costing the company money but even more so for putting my family’s life and livelihood in danger for relaxation.

You opened by asking how other people deal with the overwhelming guilt of taking time off work, and the first thing to know is: most people don’t feel this way! The intensity of your feelings on this is vastly outside the normal range of how people feel about time off. So there’s something more going on than just a work issue.

But to address the work side of it:

Good managers and good companies want you to take time off. I want people who work for me to take time off because I want them be able to disconnect and come back refreshed — because people do better work when they’re not exhausted and burned out. People see things with fresh eyes and come up with better, more creative ideas when they get fully away from work sometimes (and not just for a couple of days on the weekend, but for a good, long break — at least a week and ideally two). I also want people who work for me to take time off because having you gone means I can better spot where the holes are — where we need cross-training, where we’re at risk of disaster if you ever got hit by a bus or seriously ill because no one knows how to access the X resource or what the deal is with the Y project.

You asked why your company would keep you on if you take time off. That is a really bizarre way to look at it! Your company assumes you’ll take time off, just like they assume you’ll cash your paychecks — it’s built into your compensation, it’s built into their business model, and they’re planning on it. It might be inconvenient to pay you too, but they do it because that’s an utterly routine, non-remarkable, necessary and expected part of how employment works. No one is contemplating replacing a good employee because they take a normal amount of PTO. It would make no sense to do that, because their replacement will also take a normal amount of PTO.

As for people needing to cover for you when you’re gone and getting pulled off other duties: same thing here. That’s a normal part of how this works. If your company is so short-staffed that it’s a disaster when someone’s out, that’s on your company — they’re not staffed appropriately. But it doesn’t even sound like disasters are happening; it sounds like people get pulled in to cover in a very standard, non-remarkable way. Again, this is normal. This is not a reason people get fired or put on layoff lists.

You said you feel you’re taking advantage of your company if you take time off, and that you’d be putting your family in danger. Do you feel you’re taking advantage of your company and putting your family in danger when you cash your paychecks? Like your pay, this is part of your compensation. You’re not taking advantage of anyone by accepting it and using it as intended.

I think you know that intellectually, but something in your brain is saying, “But they wouldn’t complain if I didn’t take it, so therefore that would be better.” So why does “they wouldn’t complain” trump the fact you deserve and have earned time off like everyone else, and that it’s essential to your health and well-being? That part in particular says there’s something more going on here — something a therapist could help you sort through.

That might not be the response you were expecting, but the feelings and responses you describe on this issue (waking up with tears in your eyes and feeling sick / not going when family members are dying or to be in your best friend’s wedding) are extremely disordered. They’re so far outside the realm of healthy thinking on this — and the impact on your life so severe — that it makes sense to bring it to someone who can help you do the hard work of sorting through it.

Some starting ideas to kick around with that therapist: did you learn growing up that your feelings and needs don’t matter? Or that you’ll be penalized if you try to take care of yourself first, or even at all? Or that you don’t have intrinsic value simply as you, but instead need to tie yourself into pretzels to justify being around? I’m not sure where it’s coming from, but you’ve got to dig into it, and that’s where I’d start.

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