Do you feel guilty for taking time off work?

by Melanie Chisnall

One of my favourite questions to ask people is when their next holiday is.

(No, not some exotic destination getaway for a few weeks – although, wouldn’t that be nice! – just a little downtime to relax, recharge and catch your breath).

And I’m always surprised by the answers I get:

  • When it’s less hectic
  • Once we have more resources in our team
  • As soon as I have fewer meetings in the day

In other words, not anytime soon.

I get it – at least, part of it. Life is stressful and uncertain and full of pressures. But maybe we’re also sitting back and waiting for that perfect moment, or for someone to give us a golden permission slip to take a break.

Burnout is on the rise. If ever there was an immediate reason to start planning your next break, there it is. In one survey by McKinsey & Company, 49 percent of respondents said they were feeling somewhat burned out. That’s no small statistic. Of course, a midweek break isn’t going to magically change everything, but it sure is a good start.

So why has it become the norm for so many of us to put leave on the back burner? And what’s this undercurrent of guilt we tend to feel about it?

For fear of upsetting our colleagues? Because a client might have an “urgent” request? (Note, people’s definition of urgent can be – and often is – exaggerated). Or, because you’re the only person in your entire company who knows how to perform a certain job function?

Sure. Those are reasonable fears. We’re human after all and we want to give our best; we don’t want to let anyone down. Fair enough.

But, here’s my question: Why is it so easy to let yourself down by putting things off that you know are actually going to benefit the way you work and your well-being?

I’ll give you the short answer: boundaries.

Or rather, a lack of them.

Some companies try their luck and take advantage of a situation. Like approving leave but then asking employees to cancel it at the last minute (or on their first day of holiday – true story, I know of a company where this happened regularly).

But it’s not always the case.

Most of the time, we put off taking leave due to a lack of personal and professional boundaries. Do you really need to be part of that work/client WhatsApp group? Why do you reply to work-related emails after hours?


Setting healthy boundaries is one of the biggest acts of self-care and personal well-being there is.

So what does any of this have to do with taking some time off work?


Until you decide that you are worthy of making your well-being more of a priority (for your health, your closest relationships, your quality of work), you’ll probably continue making excuses to put off taking leave.

We can’t keep feeling run down, complaining about how busy life is, or blaming employers because there’s “no time” for a holiday.

There is time.

We’re living through uncertain times right now and everyone’s feeling exhausted. There will never be a perfect time, so let’s stop waiting for it.

No one is going to hand you a holiday on a silver platter, I guarantee you.

That’s up to you.

Side note: If you’re worried about being treated differently because you dared to request some time off, I recommend that you start reaching out to organisations you respect and see how you can bring your skills and value to them instead. Any company that makes you feel bad for wanting to take leave says a lot about its culture – and how it views its employees.

So, we know that taking leave is important for our well-being. But how do we practically go about making that happen?

First, decide on how much leave you need.

We all have our own reasons for wanting time off work – this will determine how much leave you probably want or need to take.

For some of us, it’s a day or two here and there to catch up on personal errands and life. For others, it’s a solid week to rest and recharge properly. And then, if it’s been a particularly tough season, this might look like a couple of weeks to find what fuels your soul again.

The better your well-being, the better your life, and the better you’re able to work.

Let’s talk practicalities.

It’s lovely to fantasise about having a staycation or being on a mini-break, but how do we really go about it when life is just so hectic?

Easy. We start with a plan.

At least, that’s what I try and do. If you work in a company where you can take an impromptu day or two off, amazing. You’re one of the lucky ones. If not, you’re probably going to need to give a bit of notice.

Next, cover your bases.

1) Wrap up, request, reschedule.

There’s nothing worse than taking leave and coming back to a pile of work that’s waiting for you. Try and see what projects you can wrap up (or a good chunk of them, anyway) before you leave, find a colleague to help you out with a few tasks that won’t impact their own workload, and reschedule meetings where possible for when you’re back.

2) Get the technicalities out of the way.

Chat to your manager, check in with your team, give your clients a head’s up, and book your leave (in writing or on the HR system).

3) Be clear about your (un)availability.

I see this too often – people book their time off and promptly announce that they’ll actively be checking their phone and email. Why? If you’re on leave, be on leave – otherwise, what’s the point? If you’re not a fire marshall or an ER doctor, there’s no reason for you to be instantly available if you’ve planned ahead.

Remember why you’re taking time off.

People are finally starting to speak up on social media about ending the glamification of overworking. And I love it.

We shouldn’t feel guilty for prioritising our well-being.

We’re not designed to go-go-go until the tank is empty. Just like a car, we need to regularly fill up our ‘gas tank’ otherwise, we won’t go. Recharging our ‘batteries’ helps us to reignite our motivation, get clear on what’s been weighing us down, and come back with a fresh perspective.

And that’s something all organisations can benefit from.

In fact, when we make time for self-care and taking regular breaks, we’re happier and more productive.

So the next time you’re feeling guilty about applying for leave, remember that.

When you absolutely can’t take leave but you need a break…

Sometimes it’s just not practical to take a few days off in a particular season, for whatever reason.

But you can still take a break.

You can still put in half a day’s leave here and there. You can still wrap up a little earlier on a Friday (who plans meetings after 2pm on a Friday anyway?)

Would you be able to get that task done in half the time if you knew you’d wrap up a bit earlier one day a week? Could you ask for a meeting summary to be emailed to you instead of attending a non-crucial one?

Pick your priorities and start setting tiny boundaries where you can.

What happens when you don’t take leave?

If I haven’t convinced you by now to start thinking differently about taking some much-needed time off work for your well-being, I’ll leave you with this:

No one wants to end up in the hospital due to stress. Anytime, really, but especially during a pandemic.

I know of people (hard workers, team leads) who’ve landed up in the hospital from burnout. They never took leave. And they definitely didn’t speak up about regular requests to work late or over weekends. Boundaries.

One small boundary you can start with today?

Start planning your next break – a week, a few days, half a day.

Whatever you need right now to show up a little more energised, a little more motivated – a little less stressed out or flat.

Whether you have your own business or you’re working within an organisiation, we all need regular time-outs to catch our breath.

Especially when we’ve forgotten what it feels like to truly relax.

What’s your favourite type of leave and do you have any plans to take a break over the next few months?

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