Sorry, Not Sorry: Take the PTO, Leave the Guilt Trip

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For many years on this blog, I’ve advocated for people taking time off from work. It’s critical to maintain a healthy life and optimal creativity and innovation. You can’t do your best work when you are worn out. If you aren’t familiar with my previous writings on this topic, you should check them out here, here, and here.

Even though I do my best to teach on this subject and lead by example, I’ve recently discovered that my efforts are inadequate. People on my team are still reluctant to take time off. PTO balances on my team are at an all-time high. I know I’m not the only one. I’m sure many of my readers have noticed that their team members aren’t taking the time off that they should either. What can we do about it?

While there are many complexities to this issue of time off, I’d like to use this article to just focus on one aspect. I’ve come to believe that it’s often the most subtle things in a culture that make the most difference. I’d like to focus on the words we use when we hear people are taking time off. Words are powerful.

I’ll share my experience:

I get excited when I plan a multi-week trip, but I dread telling my co-workers about it. I’d honestly rather not tell anyone and just go, but people count on me, so it’s only right to tell them when I won’t be available. I share that I have some planned PTO coming up and then brace myself for the response. Sometimes, I’m tempted to include a pre-emptive apology in the announcement because I feel like I’ll be inconveniencing the team.

Here are some responses I’ve heard over the years:

  1. Must be nice.
  2. I’m jealous.
  3. Didn’t you just get promoted?
  4. That’s very European of you.
  5. Well, I suppose we can cover for you…

None of those responses are mean or ill-intended. Some are said in jest. Not one of them hurt me or offended me, but they did communicate something subtle to me: What you are doing isn’t normal. What you are doing isn’t convenient. What you are doing isn’t in the best interest of the team. Those subtle notions float around in my soul and make me feel slightly guilty for taking time off.

I’ve also experienced a different kind of response:

  1. Wow, that’s awesome! Way to go!
  2. Well-deserved!
  3. Don’t spend a minute thinking about work, we got it.
  4. Tell me more. I want to do something similar.
  5. Send me pictures!

This list is completely different. These comments communicate that what I’m doing is right, acceptable, and good.

Do you see the difference? It’s subtle but real. I’m not bringing this up because I have thin skin and can’t take a ribbing. I’m bringing it because these are cultural cues that influence team dynamics and group behavior.

How we speak to each other matters. If you hear someone in your workgroup talking like the first list, make sure you counteract it with something from the second list.

People don’t want to take PTO because they don’t want to inconvenience their teams. With all of the work we have going on, there is never a good time. If someone on your team is bold enough to take their time off, make sure you cheer them on. That’s the way we get healthy.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.