Sabbaticals can provide an opportunity to travel, study, or reexamine priorities. Here’s how workers across the world took advantage of their time off – and why they say it’s so important.

No matter how much you enjoy your work and your employer, you’ve probably daydreamed about taking a sabbatical. Maybe you pictured yourself dusting off your novel, or traveling to exotic locales, or just lazing in a hammock.

What exactly is a sabbatical? Think of it as an extended break from work that some companies offer to some employees. Depending on the employer, sabbaticals may be paid or unpaid. They typically last anywhere from a month to a year. The idea is to provide excellent employees time to rest, learn and reevaluate.

And there has been a great deal of reevaluating going on since Covid-19 hit; people worldwide have been examining their work/life balance. Small wonder, then, that requests for sabbaticals  during the pandemic. It also makes sense that sabbaticals are common among Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. These opportunities to step back and reevaluate one’s career and circumstances are one way many businesses demonstrate to workers that they care about the whole person.

Because sabbaticals vary greatly among organizations, we decided to learn about them through discussions with some folks we know very well: Adecco Group employees. Their experiences and learnings may help you decide whether to take a sabbatical — and, if you do, how to spend it.

The glimmer

Besides that proverbial rough day at the office — you know, the one on which you daydream about sipping Mai Tais on a deserted beach — what is it that causes workers to seek a sabbatical?

Some are driven by the travel bug. That was the case for Sophie Logan, now an LHH Social Media Director at the Adecco Group, in 2013 when she worked as Head of Practice at an executive search firm. “I’d had many discussions with friends about traveling they’d done over the years,” she recalls. “Their adventures sounded incredibly exciting. From those discussions came the seed that taking time out to travel was something I absolutely had to do. I’d never had the opportunity to take a gap year — who would have paid for that? — and had only ever been to other countries on holidays.”

Organizational changes are another factor that may prompt a desire for time away. When such changes were announced at the Adecco Group, Bettina Schaller, then a Public Affairs Director, got the glimmer. It was 2015, and “some changes in my role were announced,” she says. “I decided spending the summer without constraints would be great.” It’s worth noting that as with Logan, travel was a key component of Schaller’s plan. “I organized a 10-day trip to Iceland with my mother and two sisters,” she says, “which would not have been possible in a normal year.”

For some, meanwhile, time away from work is put to more pragmatic uses. Dishari Chaudhury, an Adecco Group Digital Communications Coordinator, opted for a sabbatical in 2019 to advance her university studies.

Taking the steps

For some, a sabbatical is a lifelong dream. For others, the decision is driven by circumstance. “It was not an overnight decision,” says Leticia Busarello Portugal, a Transformation Communications Manager, who took a career pause (leaving a position as a Digital Communications Manager) in 2018 to pursue her creative passions. “It took me almost one year, a life coaching program, and financial preparation to follow what my heart was telling me to do.”

Those considering sabbaticals should consider what the reaction will be among friends and family members. Schaller’s family was “ecstatic,” she notes, about her time away from the office. But that feeling isn’t universal; Chaudhury says her family was “skeptical about it because the Indian job market was then hitting an all-time low” for people in her position. 

Such skepticism is understandable. Some families (and indeed some workers) worry that sabbaticals will hamper career opportunities, marking those who take them as less committed to the company than their go-go peers. Perhaps there was a time when this was the case — but as we’ll see, there’s been great progress among employers in grasping the value of sabbaticals. If anything, those who opt for them may be viewed as strong leaders with a firm understanding of their priorities.

The discussion

For many workers, requesting a sabbatical is extremely difficult; these are dedicated employees with powerful work ethics, so asking for time away is not easy. Nevertheless, many take the leap.

“I decided that now [2013] was the time to pursue my dream to travel,” says Logan. “I was in a job I really loved and was not keen to leave, so I asked my employer if they would be open to me taking a few months out to travel.” Her company agreed, and a four-month sabbatical began.

In the case of Chaudhury, though her family cast a wary eye on the prospect of time away, her employer was far more enthusiastic. “In fact,” she says, “it was my manager [she was then a Digital Marketing Executive] who advised me to think of a sabbatical so that I could write my thesis.” 

Logan’s experience was positive as well. “To my surprise, my employer was incredibly supportive,” she says. Her manager feared she was giving her notice; when Logan instead requested time away, he not only quickly said yes, she recalls — he added, “ ‘We will even pay for your flights and first week’s accommodation if you spend a week in our Argentina office to help forge a deeper relationship with the team there.’ I was pleasantly astonished!”

Busarello Portugal believes that like Logan’s employer, other managers and leaders should be encouraging when a sabbatical is requested. “View this as a development opportunity,” she says. “It requires bravery and organization to take such a decision.” Sabbaticals are stigmatized in the minds of some, she adds, “when the truth is that they can teach one more than school or a formal job.”

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The sabbatical itself

So the plans have been made, and both employer and family have been notified. The long-awaited date finally arrives. The next question, of course, is: What did you do? Did you spend your time the way you’d hoped and planned, or did you let serendipity take the wheel?

Schaller traveled, as noted above, and also got to spend significant time with friends and family, as she had hoped. Logan’s dream was also to travel, and that’s exactly what she did. “I spent the entire sabbatical traveling the across South America,” she says. “I visited Patagonia, the Galapagos Islands, did the Inca trail, went to Rio carnival, and a million more things - it would take too long to list. It was exactly what I had planned to do.”

Clearly, she fulfilled her dream: “Traveling alone, meeting new people, discovering new cultures and histories, and seeing some of the most beautiful sights in the world,” Logan says fondly.

Busarello Portugal set out not only to travel, but to immerse herself in a new culture — and a look at her activities makes it clear she succeeded. “I’ve experienced Jakarta, a city with over 10 million people and millenary culture,” she says. “I registered in yoga classes and started looking for courses and volunteering opportunities. I joined the Indonesian Heritage Society and their evening lectures to learn more about the rich culture of the country, helped them with newsletters, and took pictures of the events as a form of contribution.”

And there’s more; she soon found herself leading the Jakarta chapter of a creative community. The sabbatical enabled her to “get to know the most creative people in the world during my volunteering program.”

Finally, because Chaudhuri “attended the final days of college and passed with flying colors,” it’s safe to say that for those we spoke with, the sabbatical was a complete success.

Reentry to the workforce

Many who have never experienced a sabbatical believe that returning to work would be a challenge — resuming the daily grind after blissful months away. But our interviewees didn’t see it that way at all. “My return to work was smooth,” Busarello Portugal says. “I always knew I would like to be back to communications work once the sabbatical concluded. I was confident, energized, and motivated to embrace a new job.”

For Logan, too, the return was painless. “Everyone in the company was fascinated by my experience and excited to learn from what I had learned,” she says.

Advice for others?

Those we spoke with were universal in encouraging workers to consider a sabbatical. Their advice boils down to shouting: “Do it if you get a chance!”

“I would recommend it to absolutely everyone,” Logan says. “It’s a magical experience which allows you to understand and appreciate new cultures, which is something everyone can benefit from. I just wish I had the chance to do it more regularly.”

“Just do it,” agrees Schaller. “The moment that desire [for a sabbatical] comes up, you should act on it. I often hear it leads to a career disruption, but in my case it didn’t. It gave me that breather that I needed after many years in the ‘rat race,’ and it allowed me to check in on my priorities.”

Busarello Portugal has her own thoughtful, measured take. “The most important question is if you are running away from something or towards something,” she says. Perhaps what’s needed is a long vacation rather than a sabbatical, she adds, or “maybe you just need to put limits between your job and personal life. A sabbatical will not help you to solve your problems, but it will give you the time and the opportunity to learn something new. Trust yourself, prepare for it, and go.”

Final takeaways

Those we spoke with have nothing but positive thoughts about their own experience and sabbaticals in general. For Schaller, it was an eye-opening experience that led to introspection and an important discovery.

“One big learning was that I love to work, so I was happy to get back to tasks and responsibilities,” Schaller says. Time away, she adds, “reinforced my belief that work has many meanings. Since I had time to ponder whether my employer was the place I wanted to go back to, the break reinforced my belief that I was taking that step with open eyes.”

“Go ahead and take this leap of faith,” Chaudhuri agrees. “You’ll return as a rejuvenated person.”

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