While many of us recognize the warning signs of burnout include lack of motivation, lack of focus, irritability and lack of desire. Much of this can be traced directly to prolonged workplace stress and fit. We operate our bodies and our minds as though they are machines and unlike machines that need fixing, we expect them to keep performing without regular maintenance. Although suggested regular maintenance best includes daily, weekly, monthly and annual rhythms, it is here after years of lacking that a prolonged period of time off is absolutely essential.
The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical text in Leviticus 25 related to agriculture. The Jews in the land of Israel were mandated to take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years. According to farmers the land benefits from this rest as much as the people. A "sabbatical" has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or traveling for research. Sabbatical is most often thought of today for academicians and clergy. But we know the benefit extends to every worker regardless of discipline.
Many large corporations are getting on board with this long-standing biblical concept - 22% of Fortune 100’s “Best companies to work for” now offer paid sabbaticals, (Fortune Magazine 2018). Companies the likes of Intel, Google, Adobe, Microsoft, and Paypal all endorse and support sabbaticals through giving both the space, time and financial support for their employees to take extended time off. Intel’s policy fifty years ago! in 1969 included: "We see sabbaticals as accomplishing two things - allowing people time for revitalization and giving the employees who remain, an opportunity for new challenges and growth," says corporate affairs manager Tracy Koon. Employees return to their jobs, in their own words, with renewed enthusiasm and heightened creativity. We find that not only are employees more relaxed and better able to handle work stresses when they return, they also come back with new ideas and fresh winds blowing between their ears.”
"We see sabbaticals as accomplishing two things - allowing people time for revitalization and giving the employees who remain an opportunity for new challenges and growth,"
Take a current example of a business model of sabbatical. The 9th best restaurant in the world in 2018, Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain, close their doors every year for four whole months!
Their annual cycle of work includes 8 months on and 4 months off. Instead of focusing on filling their tables every day all year, they live their value of creativity through providing the space to create in those off months in order to offer a service of highest quality in the subsequent 8 months. Their creative is precedent to their standard. Because of that they remain booked months in advance! How can they afford to do it? They use the period of time in what would be their slow season to create. Instead of responding to the demands and pace of a Michelin star restaurant day in and day out, they stop to reflect on what is working and what is not. The owner says, “We close for four months every year. We understand that if we want to do something truly important, we have to stop, reflect and discover new ideas…How many plates in this restaurant aren’t born from that creative process?” These months allow for full days of experimentation and research. In a sense they are able to go back to their love of playing with food and remember why they love what they do!*
With the Bible mandating it, and major corporations and successful culinary venues endorsing a long time of rest for better productivity and creativity, why is taking a sabbatical still considered such a luxury for an average worker and often not taken even where permitted? Why is it so hard to carve out the time and protect it in order for a period of rest, rejuvenation and creativity to be implemented?
We understand that if we want to do something truly important, we have to stop, reflect and discover new ideas…How many plates in this restaurant aren’t born from the creative process?”
Here are the top 3 objections I commonly here for why people don’t take a sabbatical:
1. The top justification for the argument as to why not to take a sabbatical is not having sufficient time. What would I do with all the responsibilities that I currently carry? I’m a dad, a coach, a supervisor, cross-cultural worker, a teacher, etc…Who else would take any of these responsibilities from me? Today busyness is an epidemic worth fighting against. Nearly everyone seems to be pulled in a hundred different directions. Keeping balls juggling in the air is often more responsive than planned. How does one even get time to think about self-care let alone about taking a long period of time off? The truth is, the ball may drop a little or a lot! When people come to us, they are unfortunately often past prevention. However an intentional well-thought through plan for rest makes absolutely possible for almost anyone intent on seeing it through past an otherwise simply good idea. Planning a year or more in advance to be able to set aside the space and time is not uncommon.
Many cross-cultural workers think of a sabbatical as going to one’s home country for an extended period of time. For me, although I was in between roles, I wasn’t able to take an extended leave. We had to think creatively about how to give me the time. My kids still had school and my husband still had work. As well, we recognized a home-stay would be more restful than traveling the whole time. So we made adjustments and did the best we could. We had to make it work within our limitations. We discussed which responsibilities I could release. Practically speaking, I didn’t do as many school-runs. My husband didn’t take as many out-of-town trips. We didn’t overschedule or sign our children up for more than one extra-curricular activity each. From September to December I created my sabbatical to exist during what would be my normal working hours. Every day from when I woke up until school was out, the time was mine. My responsibilities as mom, wife, and expat did not go away. I also engaged at times in community rhythms and church. Not every role was able to be put on hold. But the ones that needed greatest re-adjustment and a period of re-evaluation, related most significantly to my vocation were. This gave me the ability to release control and gain clarity on what needed to shift.
Now to some that might not seem like enough time, but to me, my sabbatical was my work. I was grateful for four months of limited demands and ample creative space for 4, 6 or even 8 hours a day at times. In addition, I also created two extended times away – one long weekend and one full week. We carved those into our greater schedule, although it was only planned a few months out. One of the weekends away was purely for fun with visiting friends and the other was an intentional strategic-planning getaway with my coach. Neither broke the bank (more on funding a sabbatical later).
2. For some the excuse may be financial. People often say their employer does not offer a paid sabbatical. They clearly can’t afford to not work unpaid. That makes a lot of sense. Today you read of countless people traveling for months on end. How can they afford it? Many have saved up, lived simply for months and years prior. Many also report selling their belongings to live a more simpler life and take the needed space they so desired. Sacrifices are required to live the value of rest. No one that I have ever heard of regretted creating the space, time and money for a sabbatical. If there is a will, there is a way. It may include living on less but the payoff will come back many-fold. I believe there is potential for almost any average worker to take time off if proper planning happens, once again.
3. The third top explanation for why people don’t take a sabbatical, is that he/she would lose their “position” and title they have worked so hard for. This is also a valid and viable reason for not taking a sabbatical. The many years of service may be a sacrifice. The building of one’s business or ministry may all suffer if not attended to. Yet with the example of many top corporations, it’s not unusual for bosses or supervisors to understand that the need exists. As well, in the role of sabbatical coach we see people finding temporary replacements for many different types of roles.
Let me give the example of one friend Susan who felt like she was on the verge of burnout and didn’t know how she could possibly take a sabbatical. She had been working cross-culturally for over 7 years. She was single and often felt overworked. She lacked vision in her current work and desperately needed a break. She presented the idea to her company who did not have any policy as such in place. Their response astonished her. “What do other organizations do?” they asked. “What does a sabbatical policy look like?” They asked Susan to do her research and come back with a proposal plan. So she did. She contacted me for resources and much to her surprise not only did the organization grant her the needed space, but they created a sabbatical policy based off of her hard work for others to benefit from, as well! What a blessing that she stopped to attend to her needs. Not just for her but for many others in the future of the organization to come.
Making the time, having the money, and not losing one’s position are all valid and viable reasons as to why people don’t think they can take a sabbatical. Understandably, many objections must be overcome in order to create this beneficial space. Yet, if you keep listening to the voice of your body, your heart and your mind and it keeps nudging you towards one, really listen! Think creatively, ask for the time off, create a plan, employ a sabbatical coach, overcome the objections you need to care for yourself and others. It may be the single best gift you can give yourself, your family and those you care about.
Considerations: If you’re thinking of taking a sabbatical, what are your primary objections? Who can help you overcome those objections? If you know others who have taken a sabbatical, what benefits did they gain from their time off?
For further reading: Top 20 reasons to take a sabbatical
*Note: This does not imply that their workers are getting four months off. However, the organizational value portrayed is one of rhythm - rest and creation.
“The final table” - Netflix