Why You Have Vacation Guilt

Millennials are a generation of "work martyrs."

Michaela Cross

Image by Sarah MacReading

To millennials entering the workforce, the idea of an unlimited vacation policy probably sounds amazing. And it's meant to: Unlimited vacation days—or "open paid time off"—are a way to attract young talent. And with a name like that how could there possibly be a catch?

"Kind of ironic," Cameron Vass, an environmental organizer, told me, "the guy with unlimited vacation physically has no time to talk about it."

I would tell you more about Vass, but I didn't get the chance to fully interview him. Vass was working an 80 to 90 hour week and doesn't have much time to chat. Unlike many millennials, he happens to work at one of the 2 percent of companies that has an unlimited number of vacation days offered to their employees. But like millennials across the nation, Vass didn't like feel he can take time off.

"There's so much work to do in environmental organizing, and I don't see myself taking any time off soon," he told me. "Kind of psychologically nice, though, to know it's there."

Turns out the only thing millennials are better at than be underemployed is being overemployed. Baby boomers might call us the "laziest generation," but millennials are working the longest hours of any generation. Even the lucky few working under an unlimited-vacation policy are rarely taking more than three weeks off.

"I think maybe I don't take that many vacations?" said Mattias Lehman, who works at Riot Games, a studio boasting an unlimited-vacation policy. "I'm doing something I love so it has never really occurred to me to take time off from work."

In 2009, the idea of unlimited vacation was cutting edge. Netflix released its "Netflix culture deck," which became incredibly influential in Silicon Valley. It might read something like a cult handbook ("You seek what is best for Netflix, rather than what is best for yourself or the group"), but it also had some good ideas about de-bureaucratizing the workplace in a world of changing technology where no one is really ever on or off the clock.

So other companies followed suit: Rather than abandon a vacation policy, which is what Netflix did, some created policies of limitless vacation.

"Netflix sort of pioneered the space," said Katie Denis, the senior program director of Project: Time Off, an advocacy organization for vacation time. "They do it very well because they have an entire culture built on freedom and responsibility. But if you introduce it to somewhere that doesn't fit the culture, people are going to be more fearful and err on the side of caution."

So, for instance, if you introduce it to a culture of, I don't know, perennially underemployed overeducated overly eager millennials saddled with a trillion dollars in student loans and a desperate fear of being laid off?

"One of [my superiors] was like, 'You might have noticed that you have unlimited vacation time,'" recalled Stella McAvoy (not her real name), a political organizer. "'This doesn't mean you actually have unlimited vacation time,' they said."

McAvoy's case is extreme—she works as a political organizer, hopping from one rushed campaign to another with little to no time off, even weekends. But the very fact that she had an unlimited-vacation plan speaks to the dissonance between employees and management. After all, why would you give such a plan to someone who could never possibly use it?

"I didn't use it as much as I should've, 'cause there's a weird silent guilt to not take days off, especially in organizing."

Studies have found that employees with unlimited-vacation time are actually taking less time off, not more. Doug Vargas, a former senior application developer at Google, told me the company opted not to offer an unlimited-vacation policy because "they found that it actually just makes people feel like they haven't earned any time off and end up taking less time off and feel bad when they do."

The reason Google ended up opting for a four-week policy is the reason Vass is pulling 80 to 90 hour weeks: Millennials are "work martyrs."

"A work martyr is someone who says 'yes' to the idea that no one else can do the job, that they don't want to be seen as replaceable, that they want to show complete dedication, and that they feel guilty for taking their time off," Denis told me. "Millennials are dramatically more likely to meet that work-martyr definition."

The problem is that work martyrs are good for one thing only: impressing bosses, not getting results. Researchers studying a group of business consultants found that the most successful workers were actually faking their long hours. Which makes sense, because research actually shows that the most productive worker is working a 40-hour week. As America moves increasingly into a service economy, work is based on knowledge and innovation, and a knowledge-based worker is good for about five to six hours each day. Exhausted workers can produce more in the short-term, but in the long-term, it's inefficient.

And while many argue that this isn't the fault of employers, people like Johnathan Nightingale, who worked years as a managerial consultant, disagree.

"I've heard that argument offered, and I think it's usually pretty bogus, and really cuts along privilege lines," Nightingale told me. "When you eliminate those formal power structures, all you do is empower informal power structures."

So if you're in an office full of, say, young white men with engineering degrees—like in the tech industry—interpersonal politics can lead to negative results.

"Women are much more likely to say they feel guilty taking time off," said Denis. "While only 22 percent of millennial men say that, 32 percent of millennial women do."

What unlimited-vacation policies accomplish, in the end, is a feeling of trust toward their employees more than actual time off. Which might be great for morale, but not for burnout rates.

McAvoy said it was common for people to break down on the campaign. "We burn people out like nobody's business," she told me. "If you make it through one cycle, that's impressive. Most people don't do it again. And a lot of people quit in the middle."

But Lehman, at Riot Games, had the opposite experience.

"We've been working on a pretty massive comms initiative, and [my manager] recommended we take a week off after that just to decompress," he said.

"I think that if you have an experience where an unlimited vacation really works for you, you've got a manager behind that policy who was being thoughtful about how it's applied," said Nightingale. "Make sure your team is rested and productive. I mean, that's what it's really about. It's not a setting you can dial so that your company is suddenly progressive and positive."

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