For the purposes of this article, I wanted to be clear (for myself and for you) on what a proper sabbatical looks like.
What is a Sabbatical?
The dictionary defines sabbatical as a period of paid leave granted to a university teacher or other worker for study or travel. Traditionally one year for every seven years worked.
Once widely practiced in higher education, sabbaticals were seen as a time for college professors to research, reflect, and culminate their life’s work. In recent years, more and more colleges have cited budget concerns as their reason for scaling back on offering this extended time of paid leave.
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The concept of a sabbatical has been adopted by other industries, but executed in different ways. Most workplaces do not offer a year-long paid option. And today, most colleges and universities don’t either.
Today’s sabbatical looks less like a proper sabbatical and more like a career break. While the former is more established, the latter is more fluid. Career breaks can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. More significantly, they are mostly unpaid.
Is This All There Is?
At some point, most of us will look up and ask the universe ‘is this all there is’?
The first time I asked this question I was 22– a far cry from the typical 40, at which research suggests most people will experience this question like a sudden storm raging through their lives.
I had just transitioned from an intern on Capitol Hill to a full-time employee. For the first time in my life, I worked a full 40-hour week, and it left me absolutely exhausted.
That was 10 years ago.
Don’t tell any of my overachieving, Insta-obsessed friends, but I need a break.
Since you’re reading this, you might need one too. But as the millennial generation is set squarely on grind-mode, it can be hard to bring this subject up at parties. We are perpetually working on a new project, accepting a new position, or traveling to a new destination.
The goal of this article is not to take away from these achievements. Achievements are good, and our goals are worthy. In fact, I hope to add more of them to the running list I keep on my iPhone. But as we get older, the energy we use to reach these goals can and will be depleted.
Can a sabbatical prevent that from happening? I asked a number of professionals to share their experience. Here are their stories:
Pam Kocke, Happiness Engineer at WordPress.com
“I work at Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. One of the perks of my job is that after five years, we get a three month paid sabbatical. Automattic is a 100% remote company, so everyone works from home. My sabbatical meant I’d still be at home, but I just wouldn’t log in to my computer to work. In fact, I barely touched my computer in three months, and I avoided my desk.
Because it’s fully paid, it was a no brainer. I didn’t have to worry about saving up for it, and we didn’t take a hit financially. It also didn’t affect my career negatively. I work on a small team and my teammates had taken their sabbaticals already, so I knew how they would handle my absence. When I came back to work afterwards, they gave me time to catch up and ease back into everything. I didn’t have to worry about catching up on three months of unread emails – they all went straight to the trash (important emails were routed to my colleagues).
My goals for my sabbatical were to organize my house, volunteer in a NICU, and sew. A lot of people use their sabbatical to learn something new or to travel, but I really just wanted to have as much down time as possible. In the end, I did rock tiny babies in the hospital, and I did sew, but my house is still a disaster.
I worried my three months would fly by. But I think because I didn’t try to do too much, it felt like a wonderfully long break. I was ready to come back to work when it was over, excited to sit at my computer again and “see” my coworkers. It’s been about two months since my sabbatical ended, and I am still feeling the positive effects of the time off.”
Kimberly Presnail, Active International
“In 2016, I took a sabbatical at the age of 34. After over 10 years of unexplained infertility, I made the decision to start IVF treatments. There is a significant financial and emotional investment in the process, and it was my last attempt at conceiving a child. Since my fertility was unexplained, everything was essentially a guessing game.
So many people tell you when you’re infertile to “relax”. But it can be extremely difficult when you have a demanding executive job, on top of the endless fertility appointments and procedures. I was so petrified to go through the intense process of IVF, and have it fail without any explanation as to why. I’d then forever question whether or not stress on the job played a role. I couldn’t control the stress of infertility, but I could control my job.
At the time, our company did not have a sabbatical policy. I had been very open about my infertility story with my boss, who is the President of the company. When I ran the idea of a sabbatical by him to ensure I had left no stone unturned, he was very understanding and graciously granted me unpaid leave for 2 months. In my situation, the sabbatical was pre-planned and I had time to prepare financially (approximately $8,000). Otherwise, it would have been a lot more pressure. Pressure I couldn’t afford as I was trying to reduce stress, not add to it. Plus, no doctor will write a note saying I need to be off work for IVF, so unemployment insurance was not an option.
I would be lying if I said returning back to work form a sabbatical didn’t feel awkward. There is a stigma attached to taking extended time off work. A fear of being perceived as lazy or unproductive. In the end – the IVF I took the sabbatical for did not work.
Five months after returning to work, I did a second round. That did work and I now have my daughter Quinn. I do not regret my decision to take a sabbatical nor my choice to be so open about my story. But I do think changing the stigma needs to start at the top. Our company now has an official sabbatical leave policy in place. And I’m so happy to have played a role in that.”
Lauren Barbiero, Associate Director of Earned Media, W20 Group
“Last year, I went on sabbatical at the age of 27. I work for healthcare-focused marketing communications firm and have been here since graduating college in 2013. One of the many benefits of W2O is that after five years of full-time employment, they allow you to take a five week paid sabbatical. However, the sabbatical must be taken in full succession (no splitting up weeks) and no checking email for the full five weeks. How easy is that? Sign me up!
I remember the shock on my parents faces when I told them my company was going to pay me to take five weeks off and travel the world.
I traveled to Iceland, Switzerland, and France. Overall a sabbatical was the best thing I could have asked for. A public relations job can be grueling (as any client service job is). With late nights, early mornings, long hours, and lots of emails. Getting to take five weeks off to experience places I’ve never been before and let my mind unwind and helped me feel eager to come back to work.”
So, Should You Go On Sabbatical?
A sabbatical is not for everyone. Some people simply cannot afford it. And for those of us who are strivers, a break may bring more stress than relief. However, like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, energy depletion is real. If you want to work on a world-class level, protecting your energy is one of the best ways to get back to producing high-level work.
What Are Some Alternatives to a Sabbatical?
These days, a sabbatical can seem like a luxury to those of us chained to a desk or dutifully caring for a family. You may not be able to take off for a month, let alone an entire year. But most of us can take one day.
The word sabbatical originates from the biblical term sabbath. Taking one day per week to fully rest can be just as effective, and certainly less disruptive, than a traditional sabbatical.
How to Make the Most of Your Sabbatical
Believe it or not there are down sides to taking a sabbatical. Some people complained of issues with their spouse. Others could not handle being alone with themselves. And still others felt as if they wasted the entire time, only to come back empty-handed.
To combat these negative aspects, here are three pieces of advice:
First, find community. You are not the first person to take a break and you certainly won’t be the last. Find out where others have done and copy their success. Check out the Female Solo Traveler Network and Go Wonder.
Make a plan. Even if the plan is to lay in bed for a week. Or to visit your sister the next week. Thinking ahead about what you want to do, and how you want to spend your time, is absolutely critical.
Do something different. If you’re used to looking at screens all day and being chained to your desk, do not do those things.
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