How To Leave Work Behind When You're On PTO

Here are signs that the summer season is upon us: outfits to beat the heat and still look professional are back in rotation and we are finalizing the itinerary for that long-awaited (and much-deserved!) getaway. But let's be honest: As exciting as the planning stage is, how likely are we to ruin the relaxing vibe of our summer trip by constantly dreading the workload awaiting us upon our return?

Sadly, it doesn't take much for people to fall into this trap. Research shows that employees have been taking fewer breaks from work in recent years despite more employers offering workers unlimited paid time off (PTO). It has reached the point where the number of forfeited or unused vacation days last year equaled 55% of the total allocated PTO, per Forbes. If people are this reluctant to take a break from work, it shouldn't be surprising that MyPerfectResume found that 82% of those who manage to do so still find it difficult to disconnect from responsibilities.

It might seem like a personal-anxiety issue on the surface. However, statistics indicate that employees' inability or unwillingness to maintain a clear distinction between work and personal time points to a larger systemic problem. Although the economic instability caused by the pandemic and other political issues can be a factor for the discomfort people feel about taking time off from work, the trend of an under-vacationed workforce has been happening since pre-pandemic. Work management, aka bosses, have the strongest influence over this. 

Workplace culture keeps women from enjoying PTO

According to the BBC, managers set the tone for workplace culture. Thus, a highly competitive environment that values presenteeism, where employees show up for work despite feeling unwell or emotionally distressed, inhibits people from availing themselves of PTO. Merely advising and delegating work to colleagues to prepare for a planned leave can feel stressful. Aside from possible career repercussions, it might not seem worth it to take time off since there'll be a pile of tasks to catch up on once they return. 

On top of how difficult it is to shake toxic productivity in American work culture, the gender gap also exists in PTO allocation. A 2022 study from Sorbet revealed that women are more uncomfortable about filing for leave compared to their male colleagues who, in turn, enjoy 10% more PTO and take 33% more days off. Women's reticence could be due to the guilt of having co-workers pick up the slack while they're gone. Worse, a losing battle against imposter syndrome makes them believe they must first earn the privilege to take time off from work. The fear of being replaceable is another huge barrier to enjoying a vacation.

These deterrents call for a shift in workplace culture. Policies and office discussions that nurture a healthier attitude toward taking breaks will help employees feel safe to enjoy their PTO. Sufficient staffing and work delegation also lessen the pressure since there'll always be people to oversee tasks while their colleagues go on vacation.

Do the necessary prep for a stress-free break

Although there are no federal laws regarding PTO, the Department of Labor asserts that employees must prioritize their welfare over their jobs. That means on your end, you must reprogram any unhealthy beliefs you've developed toward taking time off. Even if you work in emergency services, recognize it's your employer's responsibility to ensure there are sufficient personnel to cover the workload at any time.

Make the most of your vacation by making a to-do prep list before you leave. Give yourself sufficient time to plan and implement this so you don't feel rushed as your PTO date comes closer. Ideally, you should have a colleague who's also in the loop about the projects you're working on. If not, make arrangements with a trusted co-worker. Update them on the necessary details to help them handle things while you're gone. Inform management about this, too, so they know whom to approach in case of emergencies. Before leaving, remember to set your out-of-office message in your email, complete with when you'll be back in the office and whom to contact in the meantime. 

People One Health also advises crafting a post-vacation to-do list to ease yourself back into the working groove and not feel overwhelmed; this includes meeting with colleagues to catch up on work news. If you can't schedule an extra day to "decompress," have something fun and relaxing planned at the end of your first week back to dissipate the inevitable back-to-work blues. 

Take your time off as seriously as you do your job

Once you're on vacation, be strict about keeping it a zero-work zone: no opening of work emails and group chats, much less responding to them. Resist the temptation to do even the quickest check by muting your notifications, even avoiding using your phone as much as possible. If being totally disconnected makes you feel anxious, schedule a brief window for checking important messages from friends and loved ones. 

Getting into a state of flow by doing something you enjoy can keep your mind off work too. Dr. David Posen recommended this to National Geographic, saying, "If you are doing something that requires a certain amount of concentration, that's all your brain can do." Physical activities such as dancing or trekking can do the trick, as do less intensive but equally pleasurable hobbies like reading or painting. 

Conversely, you can spend your vacation being idle and just chilling. Take in the view wherever you are — down by the beach, up in the mountain, in a charming B&B — and find details that give you pleasure. Savor your meals, naps, and any company you might have. When thoughts of work begin to creep in, remember that you have made sufficient preparations to keep things running smoothly in your absence — and that's enough. PTO may be a work benefit that is not available to everyone but you should not feel undeserving of taking the necessary time to rest, recuperate, and recharge from work.