It’s Time for You to Take a Sabbatical


If you just graduated college a year or two ago, this article is probably not for you. It’s written for the older professional who’s logged countless hours hunched over a desk, perhaps for multiple decades.

Taking time off from work can seem like a daunting prospect. No, we’re not talking about the occasional week off here and there. We’re talking about taking an extended period of time off from work—a full-fledged break in your career or a company-sanctioned sabbatical.

On the surface, taking a large block of time off from work can sound like a super long vacation. For this kind of reason, many professionals might never think about taking an extended break for fear of risking a smear on their working record. Wouldn’t employers think you’re lazy? Others worry about whether they could take time off and still keep their skills sharp.

It’s all easy to fall into the trap that tells us that we need to keep working and working and working if we want our career trajectories to move in the right direction.

There’s good news for those who feel like they should have had an extended break years ago: Attitudes toward sabbaticals and career breaks are finally shifting. Organizations are beginning to understand that, if they wish to keep their best employees for the long haul, they need to accommodate them as much as possible. Already, companies like Genentech, VMware, PricewaterhouseCoopers and even REI offer their long-term employees extended blocks of time out of the office where they don’t have to focus on their regular work responsibilities and can instead pursue their own interests, professional or otherwise. Depending on the organization, some of these breaks are paid and others are not.

First, let’s define the two different kinds of breaks:

  • A sabbatical is an extended break professionals use to pursue a certain goal. Maybe they will conduct a lot of research. Maybe they’ll write a book. Maybe they’ll learn a new skill. Either way, goals are clearly outlined and both employees and employers know what they’re expected to get out of it and how they will benefit. When a sabbatical wraps up, the employee returns to work for his or her employer.
  • A mid-career break is what occurs when you walk away from your job, as you might suspect, during the middle of your career. If you do it too soon, it might simply be considered a gap year on your résumé. If you do it too late, it might be considered retirement. A mid-career break can last anywhere from one month to three years. Folks use this time to completely step away from their work. Some might travel the globe. Others might read a zillion books. When a career break wraps up, it’s up to the individual to figure out where he or she will work next.

The goal of either break is to return to work as a better-polished individual who has a renewed sense of vigour and tons of energy.

The prospect of taking a big block of time off from work may have different repercussions for different sectors and different jobs. It’s encouraged in academia, for example. But you won’t know what those repercussions may be (or may not be) until you ask your employer what they think about the idea. Should they be on board with it, set goals and parameters for what you intend to get out of your time off so all parties know what to expect.

The benefits of taking time off (or allowing your employees to)

Sabbaticals and extended breaks offer employers and employees a number of benefits, including:

  • Employee retention increases. When employees have the ability to take breaks and return to their jobs, retention statistics will almost certainly improve. When an extremely skilled employee isn’t able to take a sabbatical, he or she might opt to leave the company by taking a mid-career break—knowing another company will extend and offer at the right time.
  • Employees become better workers. A recent study of 500 professionals who took breaks lasting between one month and two years revealed that not a single one of them regretted their decision. Everyone surveyed said the quality of their work benefited from their extended time away from the office.
  • Employees become healthier. When you work at the same company for a number of years, you can burn out. Simple tasks can become impressively aggravating. You may wake up one day only to feel like you’re wasting your life rotting away in an office. Sabbaticals can help change your perspective on all of these things. You can use your time away from the office to relax and meditate on your life and career path. You’ll return to your office—or your new career—with fully recharged batteries.

When done correctly, sabbaticals and mid-career breaks should make you feel happy, motivated and inspired when you ultimately return to work—wherever and whenever that may be.

Keeping in touch and meeting your goals

If you’re taking a sabbatical, you need to make sure that your boss is seriously cool with the idea. Prior to asking him or her whether you can take the extended time off, gather your thoughts so you have a bulletproof pitch that is both convincing and uplifting. Develop plausible goals and explain how you’ll keep track of your progress towards them.

Whether you’re traveling the world or laying in your bed for 90 days in a row, you’ll need to keep in touch with your company at least occasionally. Shooting a quick email or hopping on a short phone call every so often should do the trick. If you want your boss to sleep comfortably at night, consider volunteering to tackle small freelance projects every now and again to keep your skills sharp and prove you still care about the company.

When you’re taking a mid-career break, you don’t have to check in with anyone besides yourself. Don’t let the time away from the office pass you by without taking advantage of it. Figure out what it is you wish to accomplish and work hard toward achieving that goal.

You may find out that you were meant to start your own company or build your own app. You may find out that you belong on a beach somewhere slinging cocktails to vacationers. You may find out that the job you left was actually your dream job after all.

But most importantly, you will find yourself. You will get to know yourself better than you’ve ever known yourself before. You’ll finally realize that the only person who’s capable of holding you back is yourself. Once you get to that point, you own your future.

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