Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: I am a paralegal in a small law firm. I share duties with two other paralegals, and one of us has to be at the office during business hours. Both of them struggle with illness, so I have been more than happy to be flexible and available, especially when they have doctors' appointments.
However, I planned two days off for my sister's wedding. This has been scheduled for over a year.
They both have doctor's appointments on those days and want me to be in the office, claiming that since the wedding is local I should be willing to spend a few hours at work. I have not taken a single day of vacation in over a year.
Can you suggest a tactful way for me to tell them that - this one time - I am unable to cover? Or should I suck it up and come in to work?
Answer: "I scheduled this vacation more than a year ago, and I plan to take it. I will help you prepare for my absence, but I will not come in."
You have nothing to apologize for here, so don't make choices as if you do.
Question: It sounds like you are being taken advantage of. Being sick doesn't give these others the right to be selfish. And if you are given vacation time, unless you would be rather be paid for it, you should take it.
Answer: Amen on using vacation time. It exists not just for your benefit, but for your employer's, since people who don't take breaks don't do their best work.
Question: I agree in theory - but it is hard for me to actually say this. I just feel guilty when I am forceful with people who are going through so much already. I have had issues with confrontation before, and I know this is something I need to work on.
Answer: You're going through something, too - a year without a day off - and all you have to show for it is a guilt trip from the people you've tried to help.
I think the place to start with the "confrontation" issue you describe is figuring out to what you are entitled - not as you specifically, but "you" as a human being, family member, colleague, etc. Aim for objectivity.
That's because a fear of confrontation is just a symptom of a larger problem with boundaries; it's hard to stand up to people when you don't think you have the right to, and you fear they will dislike or resent you for trying.
In this case, use your employment contract as emotional training wheels: It's your vacation time to use. And, your ample notice means you haven't inconvenienced your coworkers; they inconvenienced themselves by failing to heed your plans.
Where you don't have such clear guidelines, pair your sense of what you deserve with a healthy regard for the power of "no." Just as you can say no to people who ask you for more than you want to give them, they can always say no to you when they think it's too much. It"s a great equalizer, and spares you doing all the work in deciding what you can and can't ask of others.