The guilt of a needed rest

I’m ending my year by taking the longest stretch of vacation time I’ve ever taken in my life. Three whole weeks. The actual number of days of leave time doesn’t add up to that. Due to generous holiday benefits, I’m really only using 10 days of leave. Still, that’s more than I’ve been permitted to take all at once since I’ve been at WVU. And I really needed the break. It’s been such a demanding year.

Now, I love my job. Even with the unusual year we’ve had and all the new initiatives and emergency programs we’ve put together on short notice, my work is fascinating and challenging and energizing. Learning and teaching are subjects I never get tired of. Of course, all of it relies on technology like never before. So I do my best to keep on top of it. My younger colleagues seem to adopt some of it more quickly that I do, but I do my best to keep up.

But now, I’m taking a break from all of that. I’m in my second week, and I battle with myself to not check work email or just look in on Microsoft Teams to see what my colleagues have been discussing and doing. So far, I’m winning. But I do feel guilty about it. Why? Why is it so hard to truly detach?

I knew when I made the leave request that I really needed this. Since March when we all started working from home, it’s been non-stop. When I’m not doing work, I’m thinking about work. Waking up in the middle of the night still trying to solve a problem or come up with a way to help someone else whose having a problem. Mentally, nothing else in my life holds me like work does.

In a “normal” year, my work with our local theatre group can pull on me the same way. It’s like having two jobs sometime, though the theatre work is all unpaid—just for the love of it. And though that hasn’t been happening since the pandemic started, not having it to do hasn’t stopped me from occasionally worrying about it.

In short, I feel guilty. Guilty that I haven’t looked in on my colleagues. Fearful that I’ve overlooked something I should have taken care of. Guilty that I’ve put off the work on the course that I teach (one of those ‘other duties as apply’) that I intended to do during this break. Other things have kept my brain stimulated. I’ve not been totally idle with other things around the house. And I know, without a doubt, that I need to stop thinking only about work stuff. So, why do I feel guilty?

What is it about rest and regeneration that causes me such guilt? No amount of vacation time has ever completely stopped it. I talked to a cousin recently who retired a year or so ago and finds himself exhausted all the time from working on something constantly. He’s exhausted, but slowing down feels wrong. He attributed that tendency to our grandmother who never stopped—until her body gave out, that is. His work is physical. Mine tends to be more mental. But both can be exhausting.

Small breaks like playing a game, watching TV, or reading fiction help, but the guilt of not doing work still gnaws. Another friend of mine who’s been old enough to have retired decades ago but never has has been experiencing the same thing. She’s staying at home, has groceries delivered, is reading a lot of books, streams the operas she adores, staying healthy. Still, she complained to me recently “But I’m no longer contributing to society!” She’s done enough to deserve to be self-indulgent now, but she feels guilty about it.

No wonder mental health issues abound in this country. We feel guilty about something all the time. We can blame grandma, or having grown up Catholic or Jewish, or whatever, but it all amounts to the same thing. We’re hopelessly feeling guilty all the time.