“A time like the present seems, of all times, not to be a time to speak of ‘leisure.’”
Just three years after the second world war, German philosopher Josef Pieper opened his essay, Leisure: the Basis of Culture, well-aware that leisure would not seem urgent to most during Germany’s existential post-war reconstruction.
But this painful time of rebuilding, Pieper argued, offered a rare chance for society to incorporate the “whole of its existence”—the joy of spending time with family, producing and consuming art, exercising, communing with nature—instead of just focusing on maximizing economic productivity. To do otherwise, Pieper argued, would result in a turning point which “future historians may mark down….as one of the major cultural crises of modern civilization.”
Right now, as America navigates its own rebuilding and is forced to face its frayed relationship to work head-on, Americans—and the world—seem ready for this counterintuitive message: In order to survive, let alone thrive, the way we take off work must also be part of this reckoning.
It’s time for workplace sabbaticals—for professionals at all levels—to get their due.
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My interest in time off is personal: After my own life-changing sabbatical years ago, spurred by my experience with burnout from a career as a venture-backed social entrepreneur, I set out to interview hundreds of sabbatical-takers over the course of several years, working together with workplace wellbeing expert Matt Bloom at the University of Notre Dame. Together, we’ve produced the first academic paper on the phenomenon.
Though sabbaticals are catching on in popularity, the concept has deep religious and academic roots. The first sabbatical policy was established by Harvard University in 1880 for the purpose of “health, rest, study, or the prosecution of original work in literature or science.” In 1977, McDonald’s was the first company to offer sabbaticals to corporate employees, and by 2017, 14% of U.S. companies offered some form of a sabbatical policy. For the most part, though, Americans who want to pursue temporary breaks from their careers are on their own.
That’s to everyone’s detriment. Our main finding is striking: Much more than an extended vacation, sabbaticals provide a psychological safe space to change one’s personal identity and to figure out what it means to live a more authentic life.
“It felt like an opportunity to live in my truest form,” said one management consultant, summing up a sentiment shared by many others we spoke to. “It underscored that, prior to my sabbatical, I wasn’t myself.”
Our research suggests that sabbatical-takers arrive at these changes by progressing through three steps: healing, exploring, and reintegrating.
The majority of people we interviewed did not intend to take their sabbatical: Over two-thirds were forced to step away from work by a sudden negative event, such as a death in the family, a toxic relationship at work or home, or getting fired or laid off. Many were experiencing physical maladies, such as ulcers and migraines, caused by or related to job stress. Nearly every participant exhibited what we term functional workaholism—a high-performing but obsessive preoccupation with work.
“It took me probably six weeks before I could read a newspaper just for intellectual curiosity, instead of immediately thinking about what it meant for our team that day,” said one congressional district manager.
Why not just take a vacation? Our research shows that healing from burnout and workaholism takes months, not days or weeks. Other studies suggest that disengaging from work is particularly difficult because of our “habituated identities”—that is, the work personas we learn to assume automatically and unconsciously. Our research finds that untangling one’s professional identity is a crucial and often time-consuming component of the most impactful sabbaticals—and one that most don’t recognize they need until it happens.
In the process of leaving their professional identities behind, sabbatical-takers tend to explore and experiment. The people we interviewed traveled to new places, read and wrote books, proposed to their partners, and tackled physical feats, climbing mountains or thriving during uninterrupted time with their families.
This exploration isn’t just fun. It allows sabbatical-takers to experiment with new, provisional identities—creating an opportunity referred to as “identity workspaces.” By reducing the stress of transitioning our identities, sabbaticals help us make sense of who we truly are and who we want to be. Enough time away from our previous routines allows for a more detached perspective, and a liminal space for transitioning to another way of being.
“The sabbatical enabled me to question my reality and my path, and gave me permission to think about my priorities in life,” one UX design researcher told us. “I can’t imagine living another 30 years until retirement without those lessons.”
After taking sabbatical, all of our interviewees reported renewed energy, creativity, and confidence. Some made drastic changes around their work and personal life—quitting their jobs to pursue a dream career, leaving relationships, or deciding to have children. But most simply returned to a version of their previous lives with a newfound, hard-won perspective.
“I came back to work with fresh energy,” said one nonprofit administrator. “I don’t think I can overstate the shift from feeling like I was just a cog in the wheel to feeling like I was a grown-up with power, with skills that were in demand, that people actually wanted to pay for—like I had more self-worth.”
Overcoming the approval addiction
One of the most common fears that prospective sabbatical-takers express is their fear of what colleagues and future employers will think. This is known in social science as the “work devotion norm”: the idea that work should take precedence over everything else in our life, including family.
Judging by our respondents’ experiences, these consequences rarely materialized. Other research echoes this finding: A survey we conducted among Harvard Business School alumni 10 years after graduation showed that they were seven times as likely to worry about how others would perceive them taking extended time off as they were to judge their own friends, colleagues, or employees for doing the same.
Sabbaticals might be good for companies, too: We found that they increase employee satisfaction and retention, and that people who were given sabbaticals by their employers returned more energized about their work with increased feelings of creativity and loyalty. Leaders who went on sabbatical came back with new ideas, and a better understanding of what goes wrong—or well—in their absence.
Despite the benefits and a rapid increase in popularity, sabbaticals remain a privilege that is out of reach for the majority of Americans. Business leaders and policy-makers can change this. In Detroit, for example, the McGregor Fund provides sabbatical fellowships to nonprofit leaders. In Australia, the government offers three month’s paid leave to all civil servants after 10 years of service.
To be sure, a sabbatical policy adds costs and uncertainty for companies. Employers will likely need more research before they can be convinced to buy in. But in the midst of the so-called Great Resignation, companies face losing employees and inheriting burned out job-switchers. The personal, creative, and health benefits seen in our interviewees accrue for companies and the broader innovation economy as a whole. The rapid adoption of four-day workweek trials shows that workers are hungry for change, and that how we work is based more on habit than on evidence.
In his work, Pieper wondered if a society more oriented towards its “humanity” would still march itself into world wars. In our time of overlapping crises—from the pandemic to climate change, political polarization, and geopolitical risks—sabbaticals offer a rare opportunity to step back, take stock, and re-align our work and lives with our core values. Sabbatical-takers already know something that it has taken a pandemic for most of us to realize: that time off is time well spent.
DJ DiDonna founded the Sabbatical Project to make extended leave possible for everyone. Find him on LinkedIn.