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There are ways to conquer ‘vacation guilt’ in the always-on American workplace

Americans rarely take breaks, and tend to feel guilty when they do. There’s a better way.

PAUL ThURLBY/for the Boston Globe

In this work-from-anywhere world, getting away from work is nearly impossible. Even if we’re on vacation halfway across the globe, we can check e-mails and hop on Zoom calls at the click of a button — a problem made even worse by the always-on mentality of the pandemic.

Leo Ruiz, senior director of quality control at Cambridge-based Verve Therapeutics, experienced this when she took a few days off in the spring to go to Mexico and found herself taking meetings from the resort.

When the rest of her team is working, says Ruiz, who usually works 10 to 14 hours a day, she feels guilty truly disconnecting.


But her next vacation, a trip to Barcelona with her husband over the summer, was much different. That’s because everyone at Verve was off as part of a company-wide shutdown — one of two weeks a year Verve closes its office altogether (employees also get 20 vacation days, plus two “wellness days” that were added during the pandemic).

“It’s the best mental health break I’ve ever had,” Ruiz says of the shutdowns. “When you take a week off and everybody else is still working . . . you don’t want to be the person who hasn’t replied to an e-mail.”

The inability or unwillingness to take time off seems to be a uniquely American problem. Workers in the United States tend to take less time off than Europeans — nearly half of US workers don’t use all their paid time off — and feel more guilty about it when they do, according to a recent study from New View Strategies. And for some workers, the pandemic only made things worse, with nearly a quarter of people taking less time off than they did before COVID-19.

It’s no wonder nearly three-quarters of Americans have reported experiencing burnout at work.


But some local employers are taking notice. And a number of them are reexamining their vacation policies to make it easier for employees to take a break —a vital change as a younger generation enters the workforce demanding a better balance between their personal and professional lives.

Several companies, like Verve, are doing this by closing up shop for a week at a time, a policy popular among local biotechs, including Kymera Therapeutics in Watertown, Intellia Therapeutics in Cambridge, and Ironwood Pharmaceuticals in Boston.

“It’s a little bit like New Year’s Day,” says Marika St. Amand, chief human resources officer at Intellia. “You’re not checking in, your managers are not scheduling meetings . . . but picture that happening for a full week.”

This year, after Intellia transitioned from being a research organization to conducting clinical trials, it added a third weeklong shutdown, in addition to the 15 vacation days employees can take on their own. “We knew people were under huge stressors,” St. Amand says.

Company-wide shutdowns are fairly uncommon, says Tony Guadagni, an expert in the HR practice at the Boston research firm Gartner, but many employers are starting to make an effort to encourage vacations. “Organizations are acutely aware that it is really important to their employees’ productivity,” he says.

Bonus paid days off awarded during the pandemic are also beingmade permanent. Boston catering marketplace ezCater does “summer sweetness,” which means tacking on an extra day to a three-day weekend. Boston global payments company Flywire has two “digital disconnect” days, for employees to get away from their devices. At Inkhouse, a public relations firm based in Waltham, employees get every other Friday off.


The struggle with “vacation guilt” is likely to happen when companies celebrate or promote employees who work long hours and take little time off. When being a workaholic is rewarded, employees can fear being perceived as disconnected.

This culture is common among tech startups, and it’s something Flywire is trying to change. In the early days of the company, chief executive Mike Massaro recalls a colleague telling him, “I don’t have a hobby anymore.”

“It was a huge eye-opening moment of, ‘That’s not how it’s supposed to be,’” Massaro says. “We committed so much to the company, the hobbies went out the window.”

Massaro can relate. He just took two consecutive weeks off for the first time in 22 years. “Sometimes you feel like you’re letting people down if you take time away,” he says. “At the same time, if you don’t take time away, you’re letting people down on the other side of your life.”

At Flywire, all employees get 22 days of paid time off a year to use for vacation or sick time, in addition to holidays — and Massaro tracks how much time people take. “We’re not looking for who’s taken the most,” he says. “We’re looking for the opposite: Who’s taken the least, and why, and is there something here that we’re doing wrong?”


Maybe an employee has a potentially unhealthy dependency on work, or it could simply be they don’t know how to log vacation days properly. When someone’s time off is habitually low, he contacts the employee’s manager to figure out what’s going on.

Massaro considered offering unlimited time off, as many tech companies started doing in recent years, but ultimately decided against it. And he’s not alone. Many employers appear to be backing away from the once-hot policy, says Guadagni at Gartner. Research shows it can lead to workers taking less vacation time than they did before.

But it’s still a popular benefit, and can work when administered correctly. Susan Hunt Stevens, chief executive of Boston employee engagement software company WeSpire, says businesses that find success with unlimited vacation policies typically “don’t frame it as unlimited.”

“The reality is, it’s not,” she says. “If somebody told me they were going to not show up for six months of the year, that’s not keeping in the spirit of the policy.”

EzCater offers unlimited vacation days, and recommends employees take no more than three weeks at a time. The company came up with that number after an employee’s house caught fire, and she was told to take as much time as she needed before returning to work — and she ended up taking three weeks.

Risk management software company ProcessUnity in Concord implemented unlimited vacation time last year, and so far, it’s better than what the company was doing previously, says chief executive Sean Cronin. When employees were restricted to a certain number of vacation days, people in senior positions received more, and that made it difficult to recruit new talent — especially from tech companies on the West Coast where there was no cap on time off. And Cronin didn’t actually care how many days people took.


But he’s well aware of the challenges with the unlimited model. So he plans to keep a close eye on it — and check in with people who take less than four weeks a year. “People forget to take vacation, or people like feel like it’s a badge of honor if you don’t take off,” he says. “That’s the thing that’s going to keep me up at night.”

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Anissa Gardizy can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.