For the past month, Kirstyn has put off sending a vacation request to her boss. The 33-year-old paralegal knows she needs to draft the email. Her flights are already booked, the trip to Arkansas fully planned. She also knows that her manager will likely approve the time off, no questions asked. And yet she freezes every time she thinks about writing a message. Her body tells her to get up, to do something else. A whole entire week, an evil voice hisses. What gives you the right? Her impulse is to over-explain, to say she hasn’t seen her family in seven years and that she’ll be visiting her grandmother’s grave rather than doing anything fun. “Who could argue with that?” she tells me. I hear her, I say. I really do. But, I tentatively offer, why not simply ask for the dates off, with no further explanation? “Interesting,” she responds, then laughs nervously. “I feel like they need to know that I will not just be there looking at whatever’s in Arkansas.”
If your chest tightens at the mere thought of asking for a day off, if you’ve considered bailing on a trip to meet a deadline, or laid in a hammock while worrying about your inbox, then you’ve experienced vacation anxiety. The symptoms are clear, even if the source of the stress can be hard to pin down. You might fear a boss who plows through your out-of-office message with “urgent requests;” after all, vacation anxiety does not emerge out of a void. The United States is the only developed country without guaranteed paid time off, and no amount of work-life-balance-peddling CEOs makes up for the fact that a quarter of American workers don’t get any paid vacation. Is it any surprise that almost half of those lucky enough to have PTO take less time off than they’re entitled to, and that while out of office, the majority of Americans still work? Even admitting to having vacation anxiety can feel like a reputational threat, and many of the people I spoke with asked to go by a pseudonym or first name only.
Aliyah is an associate at a New York-based corporate law firm where the clients always come first. Her work-week can sometimes stretch to 100 hours and though time off is technically encouraged, her manager likely wouldn’t mind if she never left the building. One of the firm’s partners told Aliyah they haven’t “taken a real vacation in years,” and she’s heard from colleagues that others have taken work calls from Disneyland. Before going away, the 29-year-old tells managers that she has her work laptop in tow and that she can jump online if need be. “I use hedging language,” she says, “and really hope that no one takes me up on that offer.” Often, they do. Aliyah got married in January, and she worked right up until the rehearsal dinner. While attending another couple’s nuptials in June, her frustrated husband prepared Aliyah a plate of food while she closed a deal on her phone. Of course Aliyah wants a promotion, and the salary bump that comes with it. But she worries about how it would affect her personal life. “It’s a bit scary to think about, frankly. I already feel this vacation anxiety now,” she says, “And there’s this idea that it only gets worse.”
But vacation anxiety often doesn’t come from a reasonable place. You worry that taking a week off will result in…what exactly? Getting yelled at? Being fired? Your business burning down? Unlikely. But like a funhouse mirror, anxiety can make boarding a flight feel like leaving your career behind on the tarmac. When Evey started a new communications job in February, a co-worker encouraged her to take two weeks off. The 32-year-old was shocked. “It just felt illegal,” she says. “I was like ‘Really? That’s okay?’” At her first job, working for an ad agency, it wasn’t. When she started there nine years ago, a colleague said staffers needed “special permissions” to leave for more than a week. Evey didn’t know what that meant, and scrapped her plan to honeymoon in Mexico to stay under the limit. Now, almost a decade later, she still feels nervous about booking flights for the 10 days she took off at the end of August. “My brain is just like, ‘but it might not happen.’”
The source of stress may not even be work-related. As a first-generation immigrant, Louisa is expected to succeed professionally and help support the family. Growing up, her parents never talked about mental health, and relaxation was viewed as simply “slacking off.” A few years ago, while working as a campaign coordinator for a New York city council candidate, the 22-year-old toted around her work laptop and hotspot while visiting relatives in the Dominican Republic. You know, just in case. One day, a few hours before a virtual town hall for her candidate, she decided to check in with the moderator. The person couldn’t make it and Louisa panicked. Shit, shit, shit, she thought. Despite being on her way to the beach, she didn’t consider postponing the event an option. Instead, she decided to step in. Louisa threw a dress over her bikini and turned her car into a makeshift studio by covering the seat with her towel. She prayed for the hotspot to work and asked the nearby restaurant to please turn down the Bachata music.
Very few people do work that simply can’t wait, but vacation anxiety has a way of making a mundane task feel as urgent as heart surgery. Before Madeline took four days off from her marketing job in May, she worked late preparing her team to handle “every single thing that I do,” including hypothetical situations that, in retrospect, they definitely could have figured out on their own. While visiting New York, she checked Slack in the bathroom stalls of restaurants and museums. She snuck in emails before bed, hoping her partner wouldn’t notice. When colleagues commented on her Instagram stories about the trip—“I love that part of the city! ”—she’d take the opportunity to check in about work. The 29-year-old worried “that clients would just completely terminate their contracts” or that “I would return from vacation and be fired,” even though logically, she knew none of those things would happen.
Women in particular tell me they feel pressure to be perfect employees who are always available. Madeline has what she describes as a “pathological” fear of people being mad at her. If she pours 100% of herself into her work 100% of the time, she figures her coworkers can’t complain. The women I spoke with want to be seen as hard workers with the stamina to pull all-nighters and the confidence to yell into a phone – stereotypically masculine qualities. Would taking a vacation make them look weak? A former colleague, who’s only had male bosses, tells me she doesn’t want to sound frivolous in her time off requests. “I worry that if I’m going to the beach or something in the summer that I’m not going to be taken seriously,” she says. She’s developed a handy trick to avoid revealing any details about her personal life: channel her dad’s voice. When he edits her work emails, he “strips all the adjectives out of it,” she says. Now, she tries to keep her language “very neutral,” fighting against an impulse “to over-explain myself and apologize profusely.”
This isn’t to say that men don’t struggle with vacation anxiety. Most of them I spoke with were executives or small business owners, who say they struggled with control issues – guys like Dan Ghallager, who is closer to 40 than he’d like to admit and runs a manufacturing company for nutrition supplements. In 2018, two new clients placed complicated orders the week before he was scheduled to leave for the Bahamas. At the time, he was the only registered dietician on staff, and he canceled the trip to “oversee the entire process.” This year he hired another RD and rebooked the same vacation, but he didn’t unplug. “I still caught myself checking my phone and email through each day,” he says, “just to make sure everything was running smoothly at home.” He admits this behavior made his new staffer feel even more “paranoid she wouldn’t be able to cover everything while I was gone.”
Ghallager tells me his partner was understanding, but vacation anxiety can also poison relationships. Last January, on his 30th birthday, Tim Connon’s girlfriend made him pad Thai and a cake while he made work calls. The insurance advisor lost track of time and by 11 p.m., his girlfriend had gone to bed angry, leaving his cold food on the table. A few months later, on a romantic trip to Las Vegas, he bailed on dinner and a show to deal with clients because he worried about losing business. Now, he admits those fears were “probably not that realistic.” But as a small business-owner, and a self-professed “control freak,” he views short-term sacrifice as necessary. His partner? Not so much. After one too many “mounting disappointments,” she left him.
As nerve-wracking as it can feel to ask one’s boss for time off, it’s also difficult for the self-employed to give themselves permission to relax. Hannah Mayderry, a Florida-based therapist, says running her own practice is like having her “worst critic” in charge. “I have to actively remind myself every day of what my boundaries are,” she says. A few years ago, the 27-year-old felt nervous about telling clients, especially those who are high-risk, that she had booked a two-week trip. “I know it’s very dramatic,” she says. “A worst-case scenario for a therapist would be that someone was in danger in any way.” In reality, her clients were happy she was taking a break, and Mayderry had made sure they had safety plans and a list of resources in case of an emergency.
The ambient fear of going out of office lives in the head, where it’s easy to lose perspective. The cruel irony is that the very people who obsess over every word of their vacation request, the ones who get sand in their laptops from sending “one last email,” are the least likely to be accused of slacking off. This group “is probably already hypervigilant and really diligent in everything that they do,” says Mayderry, yet they struggle to separate “the perceived threat versus the actual threat.” In reality, nobody is stressing about your vacation as much as you are.
Last month, Madeline started a new job, which she sees as an opportunity to reset her relationship with time off. She won’t be lugging her work laptop on trips or responding to emails outside of work hours; if she slips up and checks her inbox, she’ll at least schedule emails for the next day. In the past year, Connon’s hired a few more assistants for his insurance brokerage, who he hopes can handle client emergencies next time he’s with a girlfriend in Vegas. If work comes up while she’s out of the office, Louisa, who now works as a city council staffer, has started to ask herself, “Is this really a life or death situation? Or can this wait until tomorrow?” She wants to take vacation in the fall even though it’s a busy period for her office. It will be hard not to worry about what she’s missing, but for once, Louisa says, “I want to go away when there’s stress, so that it can actually feel like I’m away from something.”
Kirstyn, the paralegal, eventually forced herself to send the most barebones time-off request possible. No groveling. No itinerary. Nothing but the dates. She re-read it a few times before pressing send and leaving her computer to grab a coffee. Her manager replied within minutes: “Fine with me.”