Reinspire your Life and Career with a Sabbatical: the Transformative Magic of Sabbaticals

Over the past few years, we have witnessed an exponential growth in the number of people taking sabbaticals. Particularly executives in managerial or professional positions are opting for a sabbatical leave with or without pay. This kind of time-out can be a good strategy for dealing with extreme burnout, when continuing down the same path is not tenable.

With few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of sabbaticals are not the result of deliberate planning. Instead, they are often driven by unsustainable performance demands or toxic corporate cultures. Especially in the wake of pandemic-related lockdowns, many realized that they weren’t where they wanted to be, had not reached their goals, or had gotten stuck in a rut.

A career break can help you gain clarity about your personal and professional goals and shed light on how you want to spend your time. The solution may not be as drastic as changing jobs altogether but may be as simple as finding renewed confidence in your managerial skills and to ask for more challenges from a current employer or switching to a different role to fit your new sense of authenticity.

The transformative power of sabbaticals: recover, explore, practice

As part of ‘The Sabbatical Project’, DJ DiDonna, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, interviewed 250 professionals who had taken time off from their work to discover what lessons could be learned from their experience. Interviewees were between the ages of 20 and 60, U.S. residents, representing all industries. All held college degrees. Some were single, some had partners, some had children.

Nearly all of them expressed how taking an extended break helped them re-enter their jobs with renewed vigor and perspective – or inspired them to change directions entirely. "Even though the participants did not go in with the same game plan," says DJ DiDonna, "it was amazing how similar their experiences were."

According to DJ DiDonna, sabbaticals tend to follow three phases:

·  Recover: It always starts with a period of relaxation and unplugging to recover from an unsustainable lifestyle. Some practice yoga, while others enjoy nature, discover new places or visit family and friends. This phase can take 6 to 8 weeks, which is longer than expected. That’s why he advises taking a break of at least 4 months or more to fully reap the benefits.

·  Explore: In the exploration phase, once people have replenished their inner resources, they are eager to uncover previously neglected interests or new leads. They are ready to embrace the unknown, the unusual, and seize opportunities outside of their comfort zone to transform a sabbatical into a quest. The goal is to discover new facets of themselves and experiment with new ways of doing things.

·  Practice: As new perspectives emerge; people grow impatient to put their learnings into practice. They try to take on a new activity to see if it would be a good fit. Think, for example, of a business strategist who starts a wellness practice, a consultant who turns into an artist, a marketing executive who becomes a wildlife photographer, or a teacher who becomes a life coach. It is often these experiences that lead to the greatest transformations.

Seizing the full potential of a sabbatical

A sabbatical offers a unique opportunity to reclaim lost energy to heal, and to take time for self-discovery and exploration, to reflect on the meaning of life, the things we love, and the obstacles that prevent us from being happy, fulfilled, or connected to others. It leads to the emergence of a ‘radically new self’. It allows us to wipe the slate clean of the past.

The ideal outcome of a sabbatical is to live a more authentic life, unafraid to live it the way we want. It involves letting go of the expectations of others, no longer feeling compelled to conform to an all-consuming professional image, nor the idea of success, failure and self-worth traditionally tied to the job and professional title. In the words of DJ DiDonna, "it allows people to shed their identity and reaffirm who they are or gain the confidence and self-discovery to do something different."

How to sabbatical? Should you work? How to handle a career gap?

A common misconception is that sabbaticals involve zero work. For example, if you were suddenly laid off without severance pay, you may have to partially fund your sabbatical; you may even find yourself outside of your chosen field. That said, a position in any industry will allow you to hone your communication and leadership skills. Indeed, the ability to address and simplify complex issues for all audiences in a way they can relate to is key to success. At its core, leadership is about guiding and influencing others to maximize their ability to achieve a collective goal. You can develop or enhance these skills in any position that requires better listening, coaching and guiding skills to move a group of people in the same direction.

A greater tolerance for flexibility in the workplace has not only changed the dominant work model, but also the traditional perception of career breaks. But when you re-enter the workforce in your industry, remember to highlight the new skills you acquired during your break.

To a future employer, taking a position outside of your usual industry demonstrates a strong work ethic, accountability, and commitment to providing for yourself and your family. You also demonstrate flexibility in dealing with unfamiliar work. For any new employer, candidates who demonstrate self-motivation and perseverance are most likely to be highly valued.

Final thoughts

A sabbatical is much more than just some time off; those who take advantage of it can make profound changes, ranging from a new focus in their job to a radical career shift.

There is no way to completely anticipate how the experience will change you. Many new opportunities may arise that radically upend your initial idea of how you intended to use your time. Changes are often for the better: they help us to discover what we really want to do in life, or even who we really are.

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