Stop letting PTO Anxiety burn you out

Despite the hot tub-like oceans, summer is indeed winding its way down as we speak. My own calendar is already packed with back-to-school events. The beach vacation I took several weeks ago feels much more in the distant past than I’d like it to. It’s that time of year that feels like the marathon into the sprint of the holidays.

So let me ask: have you taken all of the PTO you can this year? 

If you’re like most Americans, that answer is no. And if you’re like most Americans, you won’t have taken it by the end of the year either. In fact, over 765 million PTO days will remain unused. 

On the surface, it seems absurdly shocking that we as a country of workers are leaving time away from our jobs on the table. As a nation in the midst of a burnout epidemic, one could ask how in the world we could let these benefits go to waste. 

But then again, what if we’re actually too burnt out to take time off? It may seem counterintuitive, but as anyone who’s ever been depressed knows all too well, knowing what you should or even want to do for your mental health is often a far distance from making it happen. 

Taking time off feels for many of us like a whole task unto itself. There’s deciding when we want to take off, which often means evaluating calendars – both our own and our company’s – and conferring with partners or family. If we are planning time off to go on a trip, there’s all of the coordination and reservations and thought labor that goes into that process. There’s the actual asking for the time off, which for many of us brings up feelings of nervousness or guilt, particularly if our team is short-staffed or our manager isn’t especially supportive. There’s the preparing to actually be gone, which for many of us is the hardest part of of all, as it can require weeks or more of organizing and requesting coverage. And then, of course, there’s the anticipating how it will feel to be back, buried under a mountain of emails and past due deadlines while faced with the day to day work that certainly didn’t slow down while we were out. 

It’s no wonder that so many of us can’t summon the energy to take time off to restore our energy. It feels easier – quite literally – to keep working. 

Even if we could streamline the logistics, many of us feel hesitant to use our PTO for plenty of other reasons too. According to Pew, about 16% of workers fear using their PTO could result in losing their job, and 10% more report that they worry taking PTO will hurt their chances of advancement.

The anxieties around this are tricky to unpack, because while using your employer-provided PTO should obviously never lead to job loss, we all know that the realities are much murkier. On the other hand, fears around time off being a barrier to advancement seem mostly unfounded, according to research. In fact, people who take all of their PTO seem to increase their chances of promotion by 6.5 percent. 

Then there are those of us for whom PTO isn’t even a thing, whether because we work for small companies less likely to offer it, because we work in lower wage jobs where it’s not a benefit, or because we are self-employed. In these cases, the financial ramifications of taking time might simply be too big to handle, whether those impacts are real or perceived. 

With the plethora of reasons that make taking time away difficult, it can start to seem like there’s no way – or even reason – to take a break. But before you go and cancel your upcoming out of office requests, consider just how important it is to take time off work. 

At our cores, we probably know the true value of being away. When we are fortunate enough to truly disconnect, most of us can sink into that delicious headspace in which our brains and bodies start to shed stress and recharge. Studies repeatedly show the psychological and physical benefits of time off work, which range from less illness, decreased anxiety, and improved productivity. And despite the perceived strain of planning to be out, research shows that our cardiovascular health actually starts to improve in the weeks leading up to being on PTO. 

The mountain of health and wellness benefits of PTO only seem to apply, however, when our time off is truly off. Not surprisingly, being unable – internally or externally – to disconnect from work only increases the stress we feel and robs us of the perks. If you’ve ever been checking your email while your kid is playing in the sand at the beach, you know that the role overload can feel worse for you than just being in the office.  


This feels like a lead up to a list of pithy recommendations for taking “stress-free” PTO, though I’m not sure there is such a thing. And honestly, I’d be annoyed with myself if I threw out to you a series of hacks given how complex the issues at play are and how individual each person’s work and home life really are. 

But I also know that there are things we can do to mitigate the anxieties that come with taking time off, and we need time to recover more than ever. So, I offer to you here some ideas about how we can approach our time away in a way that doesn’t eliminate the hesitations that we feel, but, I hope, helps us at least frame them in a more helpful way. 

Establish a process for mapping out your time off and enlist a buddy to support you. Even if you’re not someone who loves to plan, dedicating some time to reviewing the year ahead and blocking off ideal dates on your calendar can help ensure you stay committed to taking time away. It also ensures that you’re spreading out the time, if that’s important to you, and that you won’t find yourself with a boatload of days that you need to use with few options left for when to do it. Do this with a partner or friend so that you have someone to bounce ideas off of and who will hold you accountable to actually using the time. 

Remember that rest is the ultimate form of resistance. Our own liberation will only come from reclaiming our right to recover. As we struggle with how much our capitalistic  structures fail us as people, we can keep in mind that our time away from the grind is imperative. Taking time to recharge reminds us of our own humanity. It also signals to others like our families and our colleagues that rest is important and non-negotiable. 

Examine how your anxieties about taking time away could be connected to distorted beliefs. When we dig deep, we often discover that one or more of these ideas is influencing our willingness to take time off:

  • Things will fall apart without me. 
  • Too many people rely on me for me to truly disconnect. 
  • I won’t feel secure or valuable if I’m not busy. 
  • I am responsible to be on at all times. 
  • Everything has to line up perfectly for me to be away. 
  • I’ll have more flexibility and time in the future, so it will be easier. 

It’s amazing how true and valid these can feel, especially if we’ve constructed our lives around these ideas. Dismantling them may take time, but doing so will serve not just your PTO, but your ultimate sense of self and happiness. 

Consider that not voluntarily taking time off means now means you’ll likely be forced to take off later when you’re dealing with the health-related impacts of stress, exhaustion, and burnout. To be clear, vacation time doesn’t cure burnout, but it can certainly help prevent the onset if we are regularly incorporating breaks – big and small – into our work life. 

Explore what approach to time off is most effective for you so that you feel most confident in taking it and get the most benefit. Each of us has a blueprint for time off that works best, so figure out what yours is. 

  • Can you block off a day to reorient to home and a day to reorient to work after time away? 
  • Do you benefit from greater blocks of time spread out or shorter blocks of time taken more frequently? 
  • What type of time off is truly restorative for you? Is travel relaxing or does it create more stress? 
  • Is your time off a mix of alone time and time with loved ones? Is that important for you? 
  • What systems help you to fully disconnect while you’re away? Do you need to know that someone is responding to issues in real time or can they wait until your return? 

Your answers will depend on how your nervous system operates, how your work is structured, and multiple other factors. You might find that what you need isn’t well-aligned with your organization, and that’s simply data. You might then choose to try to change what’s possible, accept what’s possible, or leave the situation. 

Maybe it’s too late to book a vacation for the fall (or maybe it’s not?), but I hope that we will all at least use every last available day we can this year and find some pleasure in it. It might look like a day to sleep in and take a lingering walk in the park or one to play hooky with your kid for a Yes Day (highly recommend). Whatever you do, don’t let anxiety have the final say.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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