For years you’ve spiraled through the same circle of fantasies: Ditch your cubicle to explore Southeast Asia. Study Mandarin amid the gorges of Yunnan province. Or spend months researching and writing your Cold War rap musical, Chambers! Student-loan payments tend to snap minds back to the grind.
Even employees who love their jobs sometimes wonder if they’d lead more wisely or earn a promotion more quickly if only they had time to (a) learn how to manage, (b) finish their master’s degree, or (c) think.
Maybe there is a way to have your job and life adventure, too.
Sabbaticals offer employees time to travel, pursue interests, and learn new skills. The concept derives from Mosaic Law, which stipulates that every seventh—or sabbatical—year, Israelites should leave their land unplowed, forgive debts, and free their slaves. Such breaks have long been an expected perk in the academic world, releasing professors from teaching duties to research and write. In the 1960s, industry started offering weeks off to retain employees and prevent burnout. The benefit became a recruitment tool to woo top performers.
In recent decades, law firms and nonprofits have offered paid breaks to managers, to be used as they please. Some technology firms have made the benefit more democratic, giving paid time off to the rank and file, which has helped companies entice workers in a field that competes hard to keep creative employees.
Much of the work world, though, is skittish about offering the benefit. Fewer than a third of companies give some employees the chance to take paid breaks of six months or more, and that rate hasn’t budged in nearly a decade, according to the Families and Work Institute. (Just 10 percent of employers make the benefit available to most or all employees.) One reason is that since 2008, workers have been worried about the economic recovery, says Ellen Galinsky, the institute’s president. Many fear that by asking for a break, they’ll let down coworkers and seem less committed to the enterprise. There’s concern that, in their absence, colleagues will consider them not as valuable when they return, making those who took leaves vulnerable to demotions or layoffs. “Companies have to make the effort to change the culture,” Galinsky says.
The smartest companies, she adds, view paid leaves as opportunities to build loyalty and, in return, welcome back more focused, excited employees while giving colleagues left behind the chance to develop and enhance skills.
Here are tips on obtaining a paid sabbatical—and then making the most of it.
How to Get a Sabbatical
Even if your employer doesn’t have a sabbatical program, you might try to create one—and volunteer to be the test case. The best way forward is to start a discussion, raising the idea that a break would allow you to learn new skills or delve into an area of interest, says Galinsky. Some employees offer to learn a new foreign or computer language, the benefits of which may sway bosses.
Most employees would like paid leave, but as a last resort—and if time is more important than money—a worker can offer to venture out without pay.
Want some help preparing your pitch? There are, no surprise, sabbatical coaches, such as Barbara Pagano, founding partner at YourSabbatical.com in Atlanta.
How Much Time to Take
Pagano says four weeks is the absolute minimum for a true rest and a new experience, and most people who negotiate a sabbatical ask for six weeks to three months. The family institute counts only leaves of six months or more as sabbaticals. Some companies offer a few weeks but let employees tack on vacation time as well.
Have a Plan
It’s usually important to frame the pitch to show how time away from your cubicle will benefit your team and company. Offer some suggestions about how coworkers would handle your responsibilities. Pagano says a true sabbatical “has to be planned—it’s not a vacation. You have to have goals.”
Many people who seek her advice take six weeks off and divide the time to accomplish something personal, something professional, and something with their family.
Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax grants employees four paid weeks after five years of work. Before they leave, staffers are required to submit a syllabus describing their plans. That way, they can’t use the time to sit around watching soap operas, says Denise Zuchelli, manager of employee engagement. “The purpose is to allow you to do something that you can’t do if you work full-time.” Some people travel the East Coast; Zuchelli and her husband went to Italy.
Don’t Have a Plan
Some companies let their employees choose their path and explore.
The Motley Fool, the financial-services company in Alexandria, offers paid sabbaticals of 6 to 12 weeks to employees who have been with the company a decade or more. Workers with two years of service can request unpaid leave.
“We have people go out and learn new code, a foreign language,” says Erin Corr-Miller, the firm’s director of people development. “We have people go to a foreign country and immerse themselves in the culture to get a new perspective on life.” She says the employee is free to decide; sabbaticals can work both for goal-oriented people who need a schedule and for those who like to wing it. “I don’t think it’s one shoe fits everyone.”
Go Cold Turkey
Sabbaticals offer the greatest benefit if work doesn’t intrude. That means no e-mails, no phone calls, no check-ins, Galinsky says.
“If you’re thinking about a sabbatical and you stay tied to the office, that’s a big mistake,” Pagano says. “I sit with people while the tech department takes away their password and all access to the company e-mail. They freak out.” Corr-Miller believes people should focus on reconnecting to who and what makes them happy. “I don’t think people know what it means not to check their e-mail every night.”
Of course emergencies crop up, but employee and boss should establish rules about what would necessitate contact. By constantly roping someone back into office life, a company misses the chance to ensure that other staffers learn that person’s skills and rise to challenges.
Pagano says 80 percent of sabbaticals’ benefits are not for the person going on leave but for the people remaining at work: When the boss is away climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, team members are figuring out the budget and untangling glitches in software. “They have an opportunity to learn to fly.” By asking for time away, an employee helps the company create what Pagano calls a “culture of permission” that lets colleagues feel more comfortable asking for what they want.
Expect the Unexpected
Sometimes the journey yields benefits that both employer and employee can’t imagine. Rey Roy, an adviser at Edelman Financial Services, says he wanted to do something big after years of cycling. In 2008, he took off seven weeks and pedaled from San Francisco to Virginia, hoping to raise $50,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. His wife drove a recreational vehicle along the way.
“Every day, I was thinking about getting from point A to point B and nothing about finance,” he says. “It was eating, drinking, and surviving the elements. It’s all mental, but such a different mental challenge.” Roy was struck by his quest on Route 50 in Nevada, a stretch of highway with sagebrush and mountains in the distance and nothing else: “My God, you feel you’re the only person in the world. It just cleanses you of everything.”
All the while, and for a year after, colleagues and clients cheered him on. He found himself juiced when he returned. “It’s like you’re starting on day one,” he says.
What’s more, it gives an incentive to other employees because they want that boost, too. “Long term, it pays dividends,” Roy says. “The morale is lifted to new heights.”
Eight years later, he’s still working there.
This article appears in our August 2016 issue of Washingtonian.