For many of us, the whole notion of “going on sabbatical” is surrounded by an air of mystery. We might not be entirely sure what sabbaticals are, but we’re pretty certain they’re reserved for professors, scholars, and the like. Which is too bad, because they sound appealing.
In reality, sabbaticals are not exclusive to academia; they’re available in a wide variety of professions. And even if they’re not part of your company’s formal policy, some version of a sabbatical may be possible for you, particularly if you’re a highly valued employee.
So what exactly is a sabbatical? Essentially, it’s an extended, voluntary time away from the customary responsibilities of work. Whether a few weeks or a few months long, it offers a unique opportunity to reflect on your life and career, or to complete research and deep thinking that may not be possible amid the hustle and bustle of normal work life. Unlike a vacation, a sabbatical has a purposeful, mindful quality to it — a sense that you are exploring professional realms even if you’re not officially “at work.”
The idea is that by removing yourself from your daily demands and responsibilities, you’ll gain new insights, ideas and perspectives that allow you to come back all the smarter and stronger. Many employers recognize that sabbaticals can be a great antidote to employee burn-out, and that they help shape better workers who are more energized, inspired and committed upon their return.
Negotiating a hiatus may be easier than you think, and given its many benefits — from increasing your job effectiveness and refilling your energy stores to helping you hone in on what direction you want your career to take next — a sabbatical is worth considering.
The term “sabbatical” dates back to the Biblical phrase “Sabbath year,” which refers to the practice of letting farmland lie fallow once every seven years so it can replenish and again bear fruit. Similarly, sabbaticals are meant to replenish your mental and creative reserves.
According to Lisa Angowski Rogak, author of Time Off From Work: Using Sabbaticals to Enhance Your Life While Keeping Your Career On Track (John Wiley & Sons, 1994), a sabbatical is “any type of break from how you normally spend your time, whether it lasts for a month, for several years, or forever.” As her definition stresses, there are no “shoulds” when it comes to how to take one.
Yet, you’ll probably get the greatest benefit from your sabbatical if you use the time both to rest — getting plenty of sleep, downtime and self-nurturing — and to reawaken your sense of curiosity, gain new skills, and get fresh insights into how you want to spend your time and what you have to offer the world.
Ask yourself what interests, passions and pastimes you’ve set aside while focusing on making a living. What skills might increase your effectiveness at your current job? (The answer to the latter question may be key to making your case for a sabbatical to your employer.)
Securing a Getaway
In academia, sabbaticals are viewed as a necessary tool for sustaining faculty. They enable professors to stay current on important issues, publish relevant research, and return with new energy and ideas. While sabbaticals offer similar benefits to professionals in all fields, they’re far from being the standard practice in most workplaces. According to a 2005 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 6 percent of about 390 employers who responded offered paid sabbaticals; about 17 percent offered them unpaid.
Typically, the higher you are on the workplace ladder, the more likely you are to successfully negotiate a sabbatical. In some cases, however, higher-ups in a company have a harder time getting away because their absence is a greater liability. According to Angowski Rogak, the trick to negotiating a sabbatical is to emphasize the benefits your time away will bring to the company. If you work in a creative industry, be sure to stress the value of the new ideas and perspectives you’ll bring to the business when you return. In all cases, thoroughly map out how your key duties will be delegated while you’re gone. And, in advance of approaching your boss, spend time anticipating questions or concerns that are likely to come your way.
The Money Question
The extent to which employers support sabbaticals can vary widely. Depending on your purpose, and your professional status, your boss might decide that it’s a worthy investment and offer to continue paying you (either fully or partly) while you’re away. Or, he or she might simply agree to hold your job for you — and perhaps continue your benefits — during your leave.
In the likely case that your income will decrease at least slightly, you’ll need to come up with a budget to make your sabbatical work. If a lack of funds is presenting the greatest obstacle to your taking a sabbatical, it’s time to look closely at your finances. Pamela Ammondson, author of Clarity Quest: How to Take a Sabbatical Without Taking More Than a Week Off (Fireside, 1999), explains, “Financial peace of mind comes from being in control of the money you have and knowing that you can acquire more money when you need it.” The first step to achieving this is to take a financial inventory, which simply means analyzing where your money comes from and where it goes. This will help you decide if (and how) a sabbatical might be feasible.
If you analyze your spending and find that your financial picture doesn’t allow for a sabbatical in the near future, don’t despair. Angowski Rogak suggests options such as saving in advance, renting out a room in your home, applying for a grant, or perhaps just storing up vacation and sick days until they add up to a significant chunk of time. You can also practice getting in the “sabbatical mindset” at any time, regardless of money matters and days off. (For more on how to get into that mindset, see “Everyday Sabbaticals,” below.)
Savor Your Sabbatical
Even if you’ve known for years what you’d do with a break from your job, it’s important to sketch out some clear sabbatical goals in advance, both because they’ll help you make a strong case to your employer, and because your available time will pass quickly.
Ask yourself what’s most important: Doing research abroad? Learning a new skill? Getting back in touch with your inspirations and creative passions? Your goals will determine what — and how much — to include on your sabbatical agenda.
However you spend your sabbatical, the simple act of stepping away from your daily routine will allow you to see more clearly what, if anything, has been holding you back — and what is calling you forward. And regardless of where your career is headed, that knowledge will bear fruit for many years to come.
Not ready to plunge into a full-on hiatus? Try a mini-sabbatical. In Clarity Quest: How to Take a Sabbatical Without Taking More Than a Week Off (Fireside, 1999), Pamela Ammondson suggests ways to reenergize without skipping a beat at work:
Catch Up On Rest
Resolve to reverse the chronic sleep deprivation that’s been holding you back. Ammondson suggests taking a full week to focus on muscle relaxation, meditation and getting a good night’s rest every night. Hints for a peaceful slumber: Forgo caffeine after noon, read only soothing literature and take a warm bath before bed.
Clear the Clutter
Sometimes all we need is a nice, clear space to work. Dedicate a day to organizing your workspace and making room for yourself to operate comfortably. Freeing yourself from physical clutter and chaos helps free your mind, too.
Go Someplace Beautiful
Take a long weekend and find a quiet retreat where nature has a strong presence. According to Ammondson, “Natural settings absorb our negative energy and fill us up with positive energy….Many people experience a heightened awareness in nature; their senses are sharpened; they feel connected to something greater than themselves, more in touch with their own intuitive powers.”
Learn Something New
Sabbaticals are all about abandoning our routines and trying out new ways of being. You’ll get glimpses of this by taking a class or attending an event that you might normally pass up. You’re also likely to stumble upon interesting new people who could change your perspective.