Burnout is as much a threat to employee well-being as it ever was. Some 59% of workers are now at least moderately burned out, more than at the peak of the pandemic in August 2020, according to a recent Aflac survey of 2,000 US employees, while Gallup survey data found that employee engagement continued to decline last year.
Sabbaticals, an antidote to widespread burnout, have become more popular in recent decades, even as they remain relatively rare: In a 2019 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, just 11% of employers reported having a policy for unpaid sabbaticals, and just 5% for paid sabbaticals. To understand the benefits of extended leave for both organizations and employees, we reached out to The Sabbatical Project founder DJ DiDonna, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and co-author of a recently published paper on the sabbatical experience. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Can you share the findings of your study?
We studied 50 professionals from all over the world and tried to figure out what happened on their sabbatical—what changed, if anything? What we found is that without coordination, people set out on very similar paths: the three stages of recover, explore, and practice. So typically folks take the first part of the sabbatical and recover, heal, however that looks for different folks. And I think we uncovered a pretty interesting new piece about how people recover, which I can go into. And then explore: What would you want to do? Opening up the aperture to what’s possible in your life. And then practice is more like, ‘Okay, I’ve identified some things that I want to actually dig in on.’ So is it a writing project? Is it learning a new skill, becoming a scuba dive instructor? Is it trying a new business opportunity?
For recovery, a lot of the existing research talks about low-effort activities— your typical go to a spa, relax, sit on the beach. One thing that I often hear, at least from type A folks, is like, ‘I can’t just go and sit on a beach and sip a coconut.’ The prospect of taking months off in order to just relax is intimidating and maybe not helpful for some folks. And so what we found in our paper is that high-effort activities can actually be quite restorative. So folks are out in nature, they’re doing a bucket-list hike, or they’re sailing across the ocean, or they’re traveling on a road trip with three kids in an RV, and those things are actually quite restorative for them.
What are the benefits to both employee and employer of allowing that extended time off?
People come back feeling more authentic, like they have more autonomy. Folks who had been in a particular role for a long time who didn’t have an inflection-point opportunity to talk about advancement, or didn’t feel like they were being appreciated, it really gave them that opportunity to say, ‘No, I’m increasingly confident that I would like to go back to that job. They gave me this benefit.’ Or ‘I realize that I derive a lot of meaning from this work. I just also want some time for myself to do personally interesting stuff every once in a while.’ Or it can go the other way, which is, ‘Oh, I now see that I can never do what I want to at this job.’ Or ‘Man, now that I step away from it, I realize that those personal health issues I was having were related to my stress at work and I can’t see a way around that.’
From the company side, I think what you solve for is understanding better what happens when that person is gone. What’s your key personnel risk? What happens if that person quits, gets hit by a bus, whatever? This is a way to say, what goes well without them? What were they carrying that they should be delegating? Who stepped up in their absence? And what kind of ideas and creative energy do they bring back when they come back? Provide stretch and growth opportunities for junior employees to step up and be in that role for a little bit.
You’ve done some consulting work with organizations about their own sabbatical policies. What are some of the challenges they’ve encountered?
You hear these horror stories: ‘Oh, we tried that and then a lot of people quit and so we stopped.’ Well, if you have never had a extended-leave policy and everyone’s so burnt out that they’re pleading for it, you’re probably going to have greater than average departures because you have this backlog of folks who are burnt out and really need an inflection point in order to think about their life and their future on an ongoing basis. It’s going to straighten out to something where you can actually have a positive impact and retain folks, but that can be scary.
So work with folks to do experiments to say, ‘You fear X, Y, Z. Does that actually happen? How do people change when they come back? Do you retain them? Are they more creative? Are they more loyal?’ And just feeding this idea in people’s heads, especially folks that can make changes in policy. What I’ve observed is that those folks, if they take the sabbatical, they value that for other people and they understand that it would be valuable for their people on their team. And then it kind of flows down.
Are there any best practices in the lead-up to a sabbatical in terms of offboarding people effectively?
Communicate early and often. Identify what all your tasks are, who those tasks touch, and make sure that all those folks are aware of it. Again, it’s a great exercise to really figure out what folks are doing. Especially for fast-growing companies, someone’s probably picked up a bunch of tasks over the years and then never put some of them down. And so it’s a great opportunity to say, ‘Here are all the things that I do and here’s who I think could do them.’ It’s just about expectation-setting. And because you will have a plan and it happens in six months or a year, it can not be a surprise to folks and it can actually be something that goes relatively smoothly.
What about for preparing any direct reports of the sabbatical-taker to smoothly navigate that time?
Make sure that things like performance reviews, all that stuff doesn’t completely fall by the wayside. Again, I think this is an opportunity for growth, both for that person to be taking some of the responsibilities above them and also for them to be getting feedback from another manager in a way that can really benefit their personal growth and professional growth. It’s a great opportunity to be able to get different data points and think of it as more empowering.
Anecdotally, we’ve heard of sabbaticals becoming more popular among younger workers. Is that something you’re seeing?
That was one of the most surprising things that I found. I was 32 when I took mine, and I was under the assumption that you really have to burn out, that it’s more of a midlife crisis-type thing. And I would talk to people after college and in their twenties who’d be like, ‘I worked for two years and I burnt out and took time off.’ And they get a lot of flack from folks of my generation and older. But what people don’t understand is that now folks are working when they’re 14, 13, on getting into college and getting the job. You’ve actually been working hard for a decade to get to the job that you’re then expected to be rosy and fresh for.
So I would say, take it as early as you can. I love the fact that people are doing it in their twenties. Think about those people in their forties when they’re hiring managers and senior leaders. Their perspective towards time off is going to be totally different from a generation of people that never did that.
Read a transcript of our conversation, including what sabbatical advocates can learn from the four-day workweek movement.