The Only Black Guy in the Office

Why I Stopped Feeling Guilty About Taking Time Off

I traded my ‘no days off’ mentality for PTO and peace of mind

Illustration: Richard A. Chance

Being a Black man in corporate America has taught me many things — from the value of privacy to how to dodge lunch break guilt — but one of the most potent lessons was just how dangerous it is to convince yourself that you’re invincible.

Every now and then, my mind floats back to my last marketing gig, when I’d regularly put up a front. I’d rip and run from the crack of dawn ’til sundown, juggling projects like it was nothing. Then I’d do it again the next day. And the next. It didn’t matter whether I was as tired as a cliché. “No Days Off” was the mantra I lived by — not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I thought I had to.

To this day, I’m not sure why I was so hung up on being a Black superman, the guy who could “handle it,” the team player who would never inconvenience his co-workers by actually taking advantage of the company’s generous paid-time-off policy. Foolish, I know. As I sit here on my fifth day off since the start of the summer, bare feet kicked up on the couch next to my closed work laptop, I’m happy to say I’ve finally outgrown that urge. Taking a break (or two, or three) is fucking great.

It’s crazy to think back on how I’d bulldoze through consecutive months on a project, while my non-Black project managers would randomly take a day or two off in a random week — just because they could. They knew, and everyone else automatically presumed, that all of their to-dos would get taken care of one way or another. The times I’ve floated the idea of taking a personal day in the past, it was met with the same loaded questions: “Who’s covering you?” “How will this affect the timeline?” Not coincidentally, these are the same things parents typically rattle off to teach their kid prescriptive lessons about “responsibility” and “consequences.” And last time I checked, I don’t work for my parents.

I get it — one PTO don’t stop the show — but in those cases it felt like the onus was put on me, rather than becoming (like any other unexpected circumstance would) something for the team to solve together. The passive-aggressive energy is almost not even worth the ask.

Once, I felt guilt; now, I find myself typing up pleasantry-free requests to my supervisors with ease: ‘Hey, just so you know, I need to carve a couple of hours out this afternoon to get my mind right.’ Because I’m not going to lie, there were days where I’d stare at blank spreadsheets for hours, sitting in grief that I couldn’t shake off.

But not now. With all that’s been happening — Black people suited up for a war against racism and police brutality, a looming economic depression, negligent Americans single-handedly torpedoing chances of post-coronavirus normalcy — powering through it to get work done feels like a grave misstep. I’ve found myself being more vocal with my co-workers about needing my space and reclaiming my time.

Once, I felt guilt; now, I find myself typing up pleasantry-free requests to my supervisors with ease: Hey, just so you know, I need to carve a couple of hours out this afternoon to get my mind right. Because I’m not going to lie, there were days where I’d stare at blank spreadsheets for hours, sitting in grief that I couldn’t shake off. Same for some of my homies. A lot of us melanated folk have been quietly stewing in our anxiety, sadness, uncertainty, and rage for months — all piled on top of the rock-hard, unmade twin bed of burnout. No matter how many times we reply to Slack messages of “how are you?” with “Ah, I’m fine” or “Hanging in there,” shit ain’t sweet. We need that time and space to ourselves to really sit and decompress.

Want to be supportive? Try a simple, “I hear you, let us know if you need anything, enjoy your day,” and keep it pushin’. It’s painfully easy to be a decent human being and co-worker. But nope, some resort to uncalled-for sass after the fact. “Oh, I think they’re out of the office. I don’t know where they are. I haven’t heard from them.” Or even worse, a dismissive “I think they’re going through something” to the room of co-workers who didn’t get looped in. Cut the crap, Cheryll. You know exactly why I’m not online today — I told you two days ago in an email.

Earlier in the month, in the aftermath of the worldwide riots, there was even a moment where a couple of my White leadership staff members assumed that I was mad at them, based solely on the fact that I’d responded to a digital message with a simple “Yes,” rather than spewing out empty niceties to soothe their egos. Quick memo to every workplace in America: Black folk aren’t exactly brimming with casual conversation these days. Yeah, I’m generally upset, even angry, and understandably so — but I’m not mad at you, bro. I just need a break.

It’s baffling that in industries that have traditionally ignored work-life balance — whether tech, advertising, finance, or anything else — the thing that’s actually driven a change in corporate culture has been the fear of being shamed on social media. Now, when I shoot out a note about taking a mental health day, the response is an overenthusiastic “kumbaya” charade: “I’m so happy you’re doing that for yourself. You take as much time as you need.” You bet your ass I will, Chad!

For me, there’s never going to be enough time. I don’t know how it is for them and their world, but in ours there’s a lot of time that Black people can never get back. Going forward, PTO should be ours to take — plentifully and without question. I’m relieved that I no longer honor the pressure to deny myself a well-deserved Me Day. I’m more than happy to fight for them. Excited, even. Work can wait; mental health cannot. You’ve gotta choose yourself.

Do you know him? Is it you? The trials and tribulations of a Black man navigating corporate life.

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