As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, millions of people have found themselves working remotely for the foreseeable future. Working from home comes with many unique challenges — blurred boundaries, increased child care responsibilities, feelings of isolation — all of which can contribute to stress and burnout.
While there are many daily habits you can do to reduce stress, such as meditation and setting work boundaries, sometimes these are not enough. In some cases, a vacation is needed — even just a few days off work — to really recharge and combat burnout. And while it can be extremely difficult (and in some cases impossible) to leave home due to closures and travel restrictions, taking a few days to fully unplug from work can be very beneficial. This can mean spending quality time with family, virtually connecting with friends, trying a new hobby, or even catching up on favorite books and Netflix shows.
But here lies an unfortunate challenge: Many workers believe that by not taking a break, they will reap greater professional success. A study of 5,641 American workers shows that 43% of stressed employees think it’s a good thing to be seen as a work martyr by their boss. Work martyrs avoid taking time off work because they want to show 100% dedication to their jobs. They feel guilty, fear that they will be seen as replaceable, and believe that no one else can do their work while they’re away. Moreover, remote work can mean managers have less visibility of how hard their employees are working, so work martyrs can feel extra pressure to prove themselves by working longer hours, pushing out more work, and not taking time off. Interestingly, over 40% of work martyrs are millennials.
As a result, many employees don’t ask for time off. But what if you really need it, especially during these unprecedented times? How do you convince yourself — and your boss — that you need time away from work?
Through my work with managers in technology companies and startups, and my experience in clinical psychology and mental health, I’ve learned these four steps can help:
1. Identify and challenge your assumptions.
Oftentimes, we are unaware of our core beliefs and assumptions about taking time off. Bringing them into awareness and challenging them is the first step to break free from work martyrdom and prepare yourself to speak to your boss.
To help you identify your assumptions, the next time you consider taking time off, ask yourself: What thoughts first crossed my mind? What story am I telling myself about what it means to take a vacation? Some thoughts I have personally heard from colleagues and past clients include, “My manager will think I’m not dedicated to my job,” “People will think I’m weak,” or “No one else can do what I do.”
Once you identify these assumptions, challenge them by listing out objective evidence against them. For example, if you fear your dedication will be challenged, list all the times you did show dedication in your work, such as successful projects, feedback from your manager, or recognition from your peers. You can also think about people in your organization who have taken a break, yet were still seen as successful and dedicated to the job. The outcome of this exercise is to help you realize that your assumptions are not 100% true. This will loosen the grip they have on you, and they will be less likely to hold you back.
2. Write down the implications of not taking time off, including risks to yourself, your work, and your team.
Clearly articulate why you need a break — and what will happen if you don’t take it. The key here is to think about this in terms of three dimensions: the impact to yourself, your work, and your broader team.
The impact to yourself includes how burnout can affect your mental health, or the critical roles you play in your personal life (for instance, your role as a spouse, parent, or child). The impact to your work includes how burnout can affect your performance, such as your productivity, focus, and concentration. Lastly, the impact to your team includes how burnout can affect the people around you, such as decreased ability to lead or contribute to a team project, or your likelihood to be a bottleneck to team success.
The reason for this line of thinking is two-fold: First, it will help you see the full picture of your experience and help you understand that burnout does not only affect your personal life, but your professional life as well. Second, when you eventually share these points with your manager, it will help them understand that taking time off is also a choice that is in the best interest of the broader team and organization.
3. Draft a clear and realistic plan.
When asking for time off, it is crucial to share a realistic and well-thought-out plan. You want your manager to know that you have thought about this deeply. A few factors to consider are when you should take your days off, how long you plan to be away, what work needs to be done during that period, and who can cover for you while you’re gone.
When thinking about when to take time off, look ahead to important deadlines or presentations you need to make, and plan around them. Then, reflect on how much time you need to fully recharge — how many days do you need? Luckily, studies show shorter breaks are just as effective as longer breaks (i.e., more than 10 days long). So taking a few days off, plus a weekend, might be sufficient.
Once you have your timeline in mind, map out all the tasks that must be done during that period, including key decisions that need to be made. Who can do these tasks while you’re away? It doesn’t have to be just one person. If you are worried about asking too much from one individual, divide your tasks into smaller bite-sized pieces and spread them across several people. What is important here is that 1) all tasks are accounted for, 2) roles and timelines are clear, and 3) you express deep, genuine gratitude to those who agree to help you.
4. When communicating with your manager, lead with positive intent and an invitation to collaborate.
When it is finally time to speak with your manager, be honest about your reasons for needing time off and share a coherent plan. But before you dig into details, it is even more crucial to start things off on the right foot.
To do this, start the conversation with positive intent. Make it clear to your manager that taking time off can benefit not only your health, but also the quality of your work and that of the broader team. You can share some of the reasons you came up with in point 2 above. Sharing these upfront will show your manager that your work and your team seriously. If you need managerial sign-off to take vacation time, this will also help boost your case.
Second, invite them to collaborate with you on your plan. While it is important to share a well-thought-out strategy, it is equally crucial to seek their input on this. Your manager might have valuable insight on how to make your plan more effective or realistic. Or maybe they can share new context with you, such as a new deadline you didn’t know about. What is important here is that you invite them into the discussion, and work together to figure out a plan that makes the most sense. After all, collaboration is the best way to reach a mutually beneficial agreement — in this case, a plan that benefits you, your work, and your team.
The four steps above can help you communicate your need for time off, while also balancing the professional needs of your boss and your teammates. And if you need extra courage, just remember that being a work martyr, especially during this pandemic, can do you more harm than good.