Reasons to take a sabbatical

When I boarded my flight to Paris last summer for a three-month sabbatical, I had high hopes for what I’d accomplish: 

  • Write a children’s book, 
  • Attend a writers’ workshop, 
  • Learn to paint, 
  • Become fluent in Spanish, 
  • Start a podcast. 

After two years without a vacation, taking a sabbatical from work seemed like just what I needed, a cure-all that would return me to my business rejuvenated. But my expectations were sorta misaligned.

As I was soon to find out, having a successful sabbatical requires narrowing your focus, knowing your limitations, setting expectations, and most of all, embracing the intangible.

The Source Of The Sabbatical

The word “sabbatical” is related to “Sabbath,” the Biblical term for a day of rest, or seventh day. 

According to Jewish law, farmland in Israel is to lie fallow—no plowing, planting, or harvesting—every seventh year, giving the soil time to recover. Sabbatical leave applies the same concept to humans: Every six years or so, workers are rewarded with an extended break to rest and to pursue projects that refresh them and enhance their work.

Once a benefit associated only with academia (Harvard was the first to institute sabbaticals in 1880), sabbatical leave is becoming popular in the corporate world too. For example: 

  • HubSpot offers a paid four-week sabbatical plus $5,000 spending money to employees who stay five years 
  • Salesforce rewards its workforce with one week of unpaid sabbatical for every year of full-time employment
  • Adobe gives four weeks of paid sabbatical to workers who have completed five years of continuous employment.

By coincidence, my sabbatical fell in my seventh year of self-employment as a freelance writer. Now that I’ve returned to the U.S. and to my work, I’m wondering whether spending three months away actually benefited my clients or me.

Science confirms the benefits of taking breaks, but what about taking extended ones? Do sabbaticals really improve productivity or creativity? I decided to dive into to analyze the existing research and my own experience to find out.

Sabbatical Or Vacation—What’s The Difference?

vacation mode

The words “sabbatical” and “vacation” are often used interchangeably, but there are two key differences between the two:

  • Sabbaticals are typically longer than vacations. The average American takes about two weeks of vacation per year, but the typical sabbatical in the corporate world is four to eight weeks, and in academia, it can be as long as one year.
  • Unlike a vacation, a sabbatical has a goal and must enhance your work in some way. A sabbatical must have a purpose, and that purpose must be beneficial to your employer. Professors often go on sabbatical to further their research or complete a book. Universities require faculty to submit a sabbatical request detailing what they will accomplish. For example, take a look at The University of South Carolina’s sabbatical request form, which states:

“Sabbatical Leave is intended to allow full-time faculty members relief from their normal duties in order to pursue significant projects designed to improve their capabilities as teachers and researchers, and hence, to increase their future contribution to the mission of the University.”

So no, taking a sabbatical from work is not the same as taking a really long vacation. It’s an extended break that allows you to pursue a project and come back with new research, ideas, or inventions that will enrich your career and company.

The Benefits Of Taking A Sabbatical From Work

So why would someone take off from work for months at a time? And more perplexingly, why would employers allow it? According to research, there are many benefits to sabbatical leave:

  • Taking a sabbatical from work can reduce burnout. A 2011 study on nonprofit professionals in South Korea found that going on a month-long paid sabbatical decreased burnout and increased general health, organizational commitment, and sense of well-being among participants.
  • Sabbaticals can give rise to new inventions and discoveries. This is one of the main reasons universities have embraced sabbatical leave. Professors are freed up to pursue research that would otherwise be hindered by their regular teaching duties. And science shows that focusing on something other than your work can actually improve your ability to think of novel solutions, a phenomenon known as combinatory play.
  • It can improve employee retention. The genius of the structure of sabbaticals is that they’re typically awarded after five or more years of full-time work, giving workers more incentive to stick around. As an employee writes on the Intel blog, “I find that Intel employees really value the sabbatical benefit. Employees have ‘count-downs’ to their first sabbatical on their office walls.”
  • It can be a powerful recruiting tool. A MetLife survey of over 2,600 full-time U.S. workers found that paid sabbatical programs are among the most desired benefits, with 66% of respondents saying they were interested in them.
  • Sabbaticals can strengthen leadership skills. In a study on sabbaticals for nonprofit executives, 60% of sabbatical awardees reported that their board of directors had become more effective thanks to the planning that had to happen around their sabbatical. 
  • It can improve productivity among your team. On top of that, 75% of the interim leaders in the aforementioned study said that their relationship with the board was more productive due to working more closely with its members.

The Risks Of Taking A Sabbatical (And How To Minimize Them)

Taking a sabbatical from work sounds like a good thing (particularly if you’re the one going on sabbatical), but it begs the question: What are the risks, especially for employers, of employees going on leave for months at a time?

For Employers

⚠️Risk: Employees may resign upon returning from sabbatical. If a company invests in an employee by providing them with a paid sabbatical, the company stands to lose money if the employee resigns immediately upon returning.

Solution: Work out an agreement that the employee must stay for a certain amount of time post-sabbatical, or otherwise, reimburse the company for the sabbatical.

⚠️Risk: Offering paid sabbaticals may put a financial strain on the employer. Paying someone while they’re not at work could place a burden on your company’s financial resources.

✅ Solution: Consider providing half-time pay or drawing up a contract stating what must happen if the investment is not returned. It might seem counterintuitive to pay an employee while they’re not at work, but remember, the purpose of a sabbatical is not to give an employee a paid vacation; rather, it’s to invest in that employee so that they come back with new skills and renewed vigor that will improve your company in the long-run.

⚠️Risk: When someone goes on sabbatical, it may put a heavy work burden on the remaining team members. Going without an employee for three months, six months, or even a year might seem like an impossibility, especially if they’re an executive.

✅Solution: Give plenty of time pre-sabbatical to prepare and train the interim employee. Also, work out a plan for how you can get in touch with your employee during their sabbatical if you need their assistance.

⚠️Risk: Employers may not get the return on investment they were hoping for. Unfortunately, it’s possible that a sabbatical may not pay off in the way the employer was expecting it to. In a study by Michael Miller and Kang Bai, faculty who had gone on sabbatical to improve their teaching showed no improvements in their teaching upon returning, according to student evaluations. In fact, the only statistically significant change was that student satisfaction decreased.

✅Solution: Align expectations and prepare fully. The study’s authors recommend that the department chair take a more active role in working with the employee pre-sabbatical to “align expectations of the faculty member and the department, prepare for the departure and re-entry of the faculty member, and promote and demonstrate the success of the faculty member’s sabbatical.” It’s also important to note that sabbaticals can improve things that are difficult to measure, such as creativity. So it’s not always about improving your organization’s bottom line.

For Employees

⚠️Risk: Transitioning back to work may be difficult. In the research I’ve done, and in my own experience, the most difficult part of the sabbatical is the transition back to work once it’s over.

✅Solution: Have a plan before your sabbatical starts, and seek out post-sabbatical support once it’s over. Some companies allow returning employees to give a presentation of what they learned while away on sabbatical to help them debrief their team.

⚠️Risk: Getting paid half-time, or not at all, during sabbatical may put a financial strain on the person taking a sabbatical. As a self-employed person, I didn’t get paid by any company to take my sabbatical. The stress of seeing money leave my bank account each month without seeing any cash coming in was overwhelming at times.

✅Solution: Work out some paid time off for sabbatical and save up enough money to get by during leave. Additionally, you can apply for fellowships and grants to help fund your sabbatical.

⚠️Risk: The employee may not be allowed to return to their old job after the sabbatical is over. For me, I knew going into it that if I were to leave my clients for three months, there was a chance they’d replace me with another freelancer. For employees, there may be fears that they will be fired while they’re gone.

✅Solution: The employer and employee should be fully transparent about expectations. Have an open discussion with your employer about what might happen while you’re gone and when you return. You can also ask for a contract that ensures you won’t be replaced while you’re away or guarantees you a job for a certain amount of time upon your return.

How To Make The Most Of Your Sabbatical

In a study published in 2010, James Campbell Quick and his colleagues conducted an experiment with faculty members going on sabbatical from 10 universities in Israel, New Zealand, and the U.S. 

One hundred twenty-nine sabbatees were matched with 129 controls (faculty of the same rank, seniority, sex, and department who were not on sabbatical). Sabbatees and controls were tested before, during, and after the sabbatical, and the researchers concluded that, overall, sabbaticals do promote well-being. 

The study authors also offered some insights that can help you make the most of your sabbatical:

Know your abilities and limitations. The study participants who experienced the biggest decrease in burnout were those with high “respite self-efficacy,” meaning they believed in their ability to overcome challenges such as adjusting to new circumstances or coping with unfamiliar surroundings. So if you want to make the most of your sabbatical, the researchers recommend tailoring it to your abilities and needs. Throwing yourself into a situation that is too far outside of your comfort zone can hinder how much de-stressing you can do.

Seek control over the work you do while on sabbatical. Even after returning to work, the faculty who felt they’d had more control during their sabbatical—like being able to decide when and how they work—had significantly lower stress levels.

Going abroad has greater reward, but greater risk. The faculty who spent their sabbatical abroad benefited more than those who stayed home. Unfortunately, though, the Quick study notes, “Those who resided abroad benefited more during the respite but paid a greater price upon returning.”

The most difficult part of the sabbatical process is often the return, also known as “reentry” or “repatriation.” Many people experience reverse culture shock or even depression upon returning to work after an extended period of time away. Some companies hire sabbatical coaches to help employees ease back into work.

Detach from the workplace while you’re away. The most significant discovery in Quick’s study was that detachment—minimizing contact with their back-home workplace—had the biggest impact on well-being for sabbatees. Perhaps the researchers said it best when they wrote: 

“If you care about the well-being of your employees, when they go away for a respite, leave them alone!”

vacation dogs

Here’s  more research that suggests strategies you can implement for maximizing your sabbatical leave:

  • Focus on one goal. Science has indicated, time and again, that despite our best efforts, we can really only focus on one thing at a time. So instead of having ten goals for your sabbatical, pick just one and give it your all.
  • Have a specific plan for how, when, and where you’ll achieve your goal. A 2002 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that it’s not enough to have a goal intention (e.g. “I intend to exercise.”). Participants were more likely to follow through on their goals if they had a specific plan of how, when, and where they would do it (e.g. “I will exercise by doing my step-aerobic video in the living room at 6 p.m. when I get in from work.”).

Taking A Sabbatical From Work: Is It Worth It?

According to the research, sabbatical leave has many benefits, including decreased burnout, improved health, and increased employee retention. But it comes with risks, namely, a potential loss of money for both the employer and the employee, difficulties transitioning back to work, and a failure to reap a return on the investment.

For me, going three months without money coming in was nerve-racking, and at times, returning to the U.S. and to my work has felt more stressful than pre-sabbatical life. 

And as for my goals of writing a children’s book, attending a writers’ workshop, learning to paint, becoming fluent in Spanish, and starting a podcast? I completed only one out of the five. 

If I reduced my sabbatical’s success to how much I accomplished, then by that measure, it was a failure.

But how do I assign a value to the fact that I overcame my fears to achieve a lifelong dream of performing at an open mic in Paris? How do I quantify the benefit of writing poetry that I’m incredibly proud of? How much are new friendships and thrilling experiences worth?

As Miller and Bai write:

“A primary difficulty for defending the sabbatical is an inability to measure or somehow quantify the benefits of sabbaticals,” adding that their study “continues a record of frustration for quantifying a justification for sabbatical leave programs.”

Yet even these researchers maintain that “sabbaticals can make a substantial difference in career and intellectual work.”

Maybe, then, we shouldn’t judge the value of a sabbatical by how much someone produces during their leave. But rather, like the farmland that lies fallow for its sabbatical year, we should view that time of rest as necessary to replenish the worker’s proverbial soil, the fruits of which may come later.

Next: How To Give Your Brain A Break Without Booking Vacation Days

Is it really worth it to take a sabbatical?