01 Oct 2020
Taking a sabbatical might seem like a crazy idea in the midst of a global pandemic.
Flexible working arrangements are becoming more prevalent. We have more options for working when, where and how we choose. The downside can be never switching off, which leads to burnout.
The term sabbatical is being used here to describe ‘extended time off from routine work or purpose’, often unpaid. This differs from traditional sabbaticals taken by teachers for study or travel, often based elsewhere.
Very few people choose to take extended breaks from work. Social norms and financial pressures work against it. Often they are involuntary and due to unexpected events, like an accident, a chronic condition (yours or someone close to you), a redundancy or burnout.
I spoke to two managers who chose to take sabbaticals just before the Covid-19 lockdown.
I asked them why they did it and how they spent their time. I was also interested to hear more about their experiences, and how individuals and companies might benefit from similar experiences.
Sarah Holmes needed a break from her busy role as Manager of the Nelson Tasman Business Trust. She wanted to spend more time with her husband who has a progressively debilitating condition. She took five months of unpaid leave.
Sarah made sure her Board of Trustees was happy with backup and other arrangements put in place. Initially her husband, Mark, was less keen on the idea as it removed some financial security. They made a plan to cover their loss of income which included renting out their Nelson home over the summer months.
Her two main goals were spending more time with their grandchildren in Auckland and hiking the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island.
Stewart Island ended up being the best and worst of times. Sarah was very sick for a day after the Foveaux Strait ferry crossing. They loved the island community vibe and the camaraderie of fellow hikers during their three days on the Rakiura Track.
Sarah arrived back in Nelson just as New Zealand went into lockdown. She had no concrete plans for the second half of her sabbatical, just as well, with travel restrictions due to Covid-19. Their daughter cut short a year-long working holiday in UK and returned to NZ. Mark’s mother moved into a rest home.
At the end of her sabbatical, Sarah returned to work with renewed interest, vigour and energy after a five-month break.
Apart from annual leave, Dave Thompson had never taken an extended break from work. He decided on a sabbatical after five years as Group Manager, Information Technology at Sealord Group when he felt it was time to move on. He even helped his employer find a successor for his role.
Dave loves the outdoors so this was his chance to make the most of New Zealand’s adventure playground. His wife, Kerin, was supportive of his decision. They were financially secure and able to manage on her salary. He also had the self-belief he would find another job. As it turned out he was back working fulltime four months later, not what he expected.
He found it refreshing having no specific plan of what to do, apart from more hiking.
Dave ticked off some multi day hikes like the Old Ghost Road in the Buller region with his daughter, the Kepler Track circuit in Fiordland, the Angelus Hut in Nelson Lakes and some day hikes to Mt Arthur in the Kahurangi National Park and the Abel Tasman National Park. A Queen Charlotte track hike with Kerin was cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions.
When he wasn’t hiking, he built a massive firewood pile using his handy chainsaw. He started learning to play a guitar and spent some quality time with a close friend who has a terminal illness.
Dave started his new role as CEO of the Nelson Artificial Intelligence Institute in the midst of lockdown. It was strange meeting all his work colleagues on Zoom during the first month on the job.
When asked about their experiences, it turns out they correspond with other research on sabbaticals. So Sarah and Dave’s experiences suggest some general conclusions.
Sarah says her sabbatical gave her employer an opportunity to reassess organisational roles and systems, and to do some succession planning. She returned to work happier and more engaged. So she saw it as a win-win.
Dave said sabbaticals can force employers to think about workforce resilience, and the risks of losing key personnel. By offering sabbaticals employers are more likely to retain valued expertise they might otherwise lose.
A sabbatical can be an opportunity for the company to groom new people to step up into senior roles. Some businesses could also gain short-term financial relief.
Sabbatical taker’s benefits
Managers return to work refreshed and reenergised after sabbaticals. Dave and Sarah had precious time to step back from the everyday grind and gain a better perspective on work and life.
Dave says “Life is finite. You need to take time out to appreciate the simple things. Relationships are important. Try not to lose sight of this.” It cemented his thinking that life is not all about career. It reinforced his freedom to choose to work with good people.
Sarah says “It pushes you out of your everyday comfort zone. You realise you can survive on less money”. She displayed an inner strength knowing it was the right thing to do. For her husband, it was a great experience, after his initial reluctance.
She also gained more work life balance. “In the past I was always thinking about the future. Now I live more in the present.”
Downsides and surprises
Dave says “You start losing connections with business colleagues.” You are out of sight, out of mind so you have to make an effort to stay in touch. He discovered “I don’t like being on my own. After a while it would get to me.”
Sarah felt a bit guilty not being at work during Covid-19 as her backup team was under a lot of pressure. Looking back, it was not an ideal time, but she was unable to control external events.
Tips for taking sabbaticals
Sarah says “Just do it before it’s too late. Go by your instincts.” Planning is important to cover the period without an income. Things can change so it’s important to be flexible.
Dave says “Don’t rush back to work. Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out before you do it. Have some self-belief and confidence around uncertainty. Choose your timing.” He loves sunshine and warmth so he took his sabbatical over the summer months.
I’d be interested to hear more about other people’s experiences of taking sabbaticals. Get in touch if you’d like to share them.