There’s good news and bad news when it comes to millennials. The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, they’re actually super hardworking (take that, millennial-shamers!). The bad news? They actually work too much — to the point of being “work martyrs.” Even worse, they make everyone else feel bad about their vacations because of that work martyr mentality (which we all feel but can’t put a finger on).
A new report out from Project: Time Off titled “The Work Martyr’s Cautionary Tale: How the Millennial Work Experience Will Define America’s Vacation Culture,” found, unsurprisingly, that Americans are abandoning their vacation days because of increased pressure to work 24/7 . In 2015, an estimated 55% of working Americans didn’t use up all their vacation hours. Because we are all neurotic workaholics, you see.
So where does the millennial-specific focus come in? The report pinpoints the start of the decline in vacation-taking to around 2000 — which is right when the oldest of millennials started entering the workplace. Coincidence? Project: Time Off doesn’t think so. They argue that millennials ushered in an era of work martyrdom, prioritizing work above all else.
The report defines a “work martyr” as a person who finds it difficult to take a vacation because of reasons such as, “No one else at my company can do the work while I’m away,” “I want to show complete dedication to my company and job,” “I don’t want others to think I am replaceable,” and “I feel guilty for using my paid time off.” In short, they prioritize hours worked over actual productivity. Of the study’s 5,600 working American respondents, 48% of the millennials — that is, nine percentage points higher than the average of 39% — answered that it was a good thing to be seen as work martyrs by their bosses. Baby boomers cared the least: only 32% answered in the work-martyr affirmative. (Of course, these numbers could be inflated because millennials are earning their stripes and boomers are established, but there does also seem to be a legit philosophical difference.)
The problem is that work martyr employees are most likely to be unhappy — both with their jobs, and with their companies. They’re also the most likely to report higher levels of stress at work. So why all the martyrdom in the first place? Blame it on the economy. Millennials entered the workforce during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. As such, they entered their long sought-after jobs with the desire to prove themselves — work-life balance be damned. (The report cites a 2015 survey from Workforce that illustrates millennials’ screwed-up sense of work-life balance: 52% said that answering a work e-mail during dinner was acceptable, as opposed to just 22% of Baby Boomer responders.)
Project: Time Out‘s report corroborates findings from a recent study conducted by Alamo Rent-a-Car, which revealed that millennials are the most likely group of workers to make their coworkers feel a sense of “vacation shame” for actually using their vacation days. When pressed, 42% of the millennials that admitted to shaming their coworkers said they were actually somewhat serious in their chiding. But then, what are they even shaming about? Because remember that statistic — 32% of Americans didn’t even take any vacation days last year. And when they do manage to take a break, they’re still working — the Alamo Rent-a-Car study found that 34% of millennials worked every day of their vacations.
All this to say, we’re experiencing a shift in the American work culture, and it’s not the most positive thing in the world. As Uproxx writer Zach Johnson states, “If only half of Americans are taking vacations, there’s a problem with the system.”
So what can be done — how can we start taking our vacation days without feeling guilty? “To change this trend, it has to come from the top,” Project: Time Off’s senior program director Katie Denis told Travel and Leisure. “We need bosses who know the value that time off can bring to an organization. It costs nothing to tell workers it’s okay to take a vacation. It starts with simple encouragement and a reminder for employees to use their vacation days.” (What bosses don’t need are so-called “millennial consultants” to tell them what their younger generation of workers wants.)
Employees also need to remind themselves of the benefits of taking those vacation days. Travel has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol and lead to a higher sex drive (yay!) and increased self-confidence. And you don’t even have to plan a fabulous no-holds-barred vacation to enjoy the benefits of your time off. Even getting out of the city and away from the grind can have a positive effect on big-name afflictions like Alzheimer’s, dementia, ADD, chronic stress, and depression. Essentially, taking a week or two away from the job to reflect on your life outside of work is a very good, necessary thing.
Another option — and yeah, this one is scary — is to consider finding a job where you don’t feel like you have to act like a work martyr for your boss. Careers like data science, talent acquisition, and substitute teaching have all been shown to have high rates of work-life balance. There are also companies out there that have attracted talent based on a reasonable work-life balance — Verizon, the World Wildlife Fund, Discovery, and Geico, among others.
In the end, the report acts as a referendum to us all — workers of all ages need to look at our priorities. In ten years, when you’re afraid of becoming obsolete, nothing will cut into your productivity worse than a mental/emotional breakdown. Will you regret not giving your brain the break it needed by taking your vacation days?