I'm afraid to ask for time off work

Barbara Saunders, Empower Work

A version of this article was originally posted in the Empower Work blog.

You know getting rest is important. You need breaks every day, sleep every night, and, occasionally, vacations. A few days or weeks away from work can help you gain perspective on your life, clear your head, support your mental health, and ultimately be more productive on the job.

But according to a recent Glassdoor survey, 23 percent of respondents didn’t take all of their earned vacation time. And 66 percent of those who took time off said they worked during their time away from the office. When offered unlimited PTO, employees actually take less time off on average, even though they don’t have the option of cashing out the time when they leave.  

Why do so many of us give away time and money to our employers? For many people, the answer is fear. At Empower Work, where people reach out to us for support with work issues every day, fear is one of the most common topics we see.

Here are some of the common worries people have expressed about taking vacations, and some strategies for assessing the risks and mitigating them: 

“I’m afraid to ask to take my vacation time.”

Asking for what we need can understandably feel vulnerable. Unfortunately in U.S. workplace culture, vulnerability is often not encouraged. We’re pressured not to express needs or show emotions. Too many workplaces aren’t supportive in the ways we often need them, especially during COVID-19.

Ask yourself what makes you anxious. Maybe you’re nervous about having the conversation with your boss. Maybe, you’ve witnessed your boss calling people out when they asked to take their vacations, or making negative comments about these requests. You might simply feel uncomfortable talking about your personal life and needs. Or maybe the fear is that the boss will say no, that you’ll put yourself out there for nothing. 

First, figure out if you fear something that has happened or something that could happen. Often our emotions can lead us to jump to conclusions. Stepping back and grounding those in observations can help. If your supervisor is known to respond poorly to these requests, think about what consequences this will have for you: would this be a threat to your job or just an uncomfortable moment? 

Once you have evaluated the fear, and decided it’s worth asking, one strategy you can use is to rehearse the conversation. What will you say? What’s the case that might give you the best result? What reaction do you expect? Consider how much information you’ll be asked to share about your plans, and what you feel comfortable talking about. 

“I’m afraid I’ll come back to a pile of work.”

Though work doesn’t stop when you go away, that doesn’t mean your workload has to wait for you. Coming back from a relaxing vacation to days or weeks of catching up–or even overtime–may make taking time off not seem worth it.  

But your wellbeing is worth more than that work. Take some extra time before vacation to plan how your work will be handled while you’re away and when you get back. This step can be an important de-stressor before vacation and can help with re-entry.

When you schedule your break, take inventory of projects you could finish in advance. Write down a list of tasks coworkers could do while you’re gone, and share it with your supervisor or team (depending on how your organization operates). Depending on your role, it might be appropriate to simply delegate the work yourself. Identify nonessential tasks that can be left undone for a week or two. And a powerful question to ask if you can’t decide: what happens if a particular work item or project just doesn’t get done? Sometimes the answer may surprise you!

“I’m afraid I won’t look dedicated enough.”

U.S. culture puts an emphasis on “face time,” working long hours, working while sick, and not taking vacations. Our public policy reflects this. Employers are not required to provide paid time off , and only 75 percent of them do.

It can seem like a badge of honor not to take vacation. And there can be added pressure for under-represented workers including women, people of color, or those with disabilities, to “prove” that dedication even more. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 health crisis has increased this feeling. People are being furloughed, and businesses struggling to stay open, sometimes with reduced staffing. Face time and “proving your worth” can feel even more urgent than usual. The pressure to look committed is real, and concerns about this are valid. However, it’s counterproductive to risk becoming depleted and burned out, which could result in lower performance.

To address these fears, first explore your own beliefs about work. Your fear about what other people think of you may be a measure of your own feelings. Do you feel guilty for taking time off, or that you don’t deserve it? (Hint: you do deserve it!)

Then, think about your company culture. Do the people in the top take vacations? Has your manager? Have you observed fallout for people who take vacation? Or are people encouraged and rewarded? If you’re newer to the role or company, ask a trusted colleague about the typical practices.

Lastly, take stock of the contribution you make in your workplace, and how time off supports that. Document your goals and accomplishments and share this information with your supervisor. Shift the focus from the time you spend working to what you achieve. You may pleasantly surprise yourself with what you’ve tackled recently!

You may feel responsible to your colleagues, and your employer might be depending on you to go the extra mile. Being concerned about others shows you're a dedicated team member. Yet, it’s important to remember: put your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t be there for others if you’re not taking care of yourself. 

A break, even a small one like a mental health day or a short staycation, supports your mental and physical health, so you’re more equipped to weather the times.

“I’m afraid I’ll be fired.”

People sometimes have concerns that if they take vacation, they’ll lose their job

Despite the cultural pressure to not take vacation, it’s unusual for a person to lose a job as a result of taking one, especially when the company has an established time off policy. 

Consider: what your company policy is and what choices are actually encouraged or discouraged? Has anyone been let go while on vacation or shortly after? The follow-up question to that is whether the vacation was the cause of the termination or merely bad timing.

Putting it All Together

In a culture that values hard work and doesn’t recognize the importance of vacations, it’s not unusual to have fears about claiming your time for rest and relaxation. 

It’s worth exploring those fears if it means you can reap the benefits of that break. 

There are many factors that tie into our wellbeing — from taking a vacation to the value and satisfaction (and financial security) of our jobs. Weighing what you need for your wellbeing is a valuable investment in yourself and your future.


If you feel anxious in many situations, not just work, it's possible you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder. Take our anxiety test to see if you are at risk.

To help Mental Health America better understand mental health in the workplace, take our annual Work Health Survey.

Treatment & Resources