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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Should You Take a Sabbatical? 3 Women Weigh In

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Holly Mandarich/Unsplash

Imagine exploring the Pacific Northwest and finding your way to Kurt Cobain’s house. Or taking a Trans Siberian train trip from Moscow to Bangkok. Or how about six months in nature hiking the Appalachian Trail?

Sound like something you've always dreamed of? Maybe it’s time for a sabbatical.

Traditionally, a sabbatical involves a break from work, granted by your employer, and after taking a mutually agreed-upon amount of time off, you return to your 9-to-5 gig. But a sabbatical doesn’t always have to look traditional. Here’s how three women decided to take time out for themselves and the career benefits they got from doing so, plus what to think about if you want to take a sabbatical of your own.

The Inkling

After clocking 60-hour work weeks and dealing with “turmoil in her personal life,” Molly Borchers, a 27-year-old PR professional was tired of feeling “drained, unmotivated, and exhausted.” She sought guidance from a counselor who suggested she make a list of all the things she wanted in her life—no limits or boundaries on what was possible.

After completing the exercise, she realized that “experiences were much more important to me than things,” she says. “While writing the list, I realized that I truly wanted to live…I was literally asleep at the wheel, barreling down the road of life on autopilot at warp speed, yet unable to see what was right in front of me.” Borchers decided that a break from her job, in the form of six weeks wandering Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, was in order.

Erin Gabrielson, a 31-year-old PsyD, decided to take a sabbatical for similar reasons. Feeling burnt out, tired, and disgruntled with managed care medicine after finishing her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology, she knew “I did not want to start my career with the kind of attitude and feelings I had by the time I finished my degree.”Initially, Gabrielson planned a Trans Siberian trip followed by a climb to Mt. Everest base camp in Nepal and then more travel in India and Bangladesh. But her 12-month plan eventually extended into 25 months, with a stint living in Europe, hiking the east coast of the U.S., hitchhiking in Central America, a few visits home, and a final road trip across the U.S.

But taking a sabbatical doesn’t just have to be the result of feeling burned out. It can also be a time to consciously achieve your goals. In my own life, I was ready to leave my job, and I decided to take some time off before starting a new gig to fulfill a goal I’d always had—hiking the Appalachian Trail with my boyfriend. The way our careers were going, I knew that the more we delayed the trip, the less likely it was to happen. We figured the timing was right, so we went for it.

What's in it for Me?

So, besides returning with stories that will make your friends envious and checking goals off your bucket list, do sabbaticals offer other tangible benefits?

In a word, yes. All three of us found that a sabbatical was a chance to readjust, refocus, and get refreshed for the next phase in our lives. Before Borchers’ sabbatical, she made the decision not to return to the traditional workplace, but to start her own consulting firm instead. And her sabbatical, she says, “definitely refreshed my sense of ambition. I hit the ground running hard once I got home and quickly built a client base.”

Although Gabrielson is in a completely different field, she has the same sentiment. “I find I am renewed and excited about my work again—which is what I hoped would happen.”

Prior to my trip, I was working full time, running a small business, and freelancing after work. I had way too many commitments, and I was often overwhelmed. But on the trail, I had little to do but hike and socialize. Taking time out gave me a way to be comfortable in my own skin, not just constantly achieving or doing. Because I had time to just think and dream, I left my sabbatical with clear priorities about what needed to change in my life upon my return home.

Career Implications

All this said, some might be tempted to think that a sabbatical is essentially career suicide. After all, it seems that every piece of advice on jobs and resumes is geared toward covering up gaps in resumes. So, how does time off appear to a future employer?

Gabrielson, whose sabbatical ended up lasting over two years, says, “The transition back to my career has not been difficult, except for having to relearn some of the technical aspects of my work that have changed.”

She actually credits her sabbatical for helping her get her current position as a Fellow in Psychology at Children's National Medical Center. While she tended to wait for the interviewer to bring up her time off (she detailed it in a "Life Experiences" section on her resume), her interviewers consistently wanted to know how her sabbatical related to her career and the position’s responsibilities. Overall, she found that “people generally responded well, but the more interested people were in the sabbatical, the more interested they were in me as a candidate in general.”

That said, she also acknowledges that some employers would be skeptical of her extended time off. “I know I was not interviewed for positions I applied to because I took time off,” she says. But, that was OK—it was more important to find a cultural fit in the workplace. “I wouldn't want to work somewhere that didn't respect and revel in my sabbatical experiences,” she explains.

As for me, I transitioned to a position I would have never have imagined, but that fit my newfound clarity about my personal and professional goals—I now work as a Project Manager for a private media company in Afghanistan. I doubt my sabbatical had anything to do with why the company hired me, but I know that my time on the trail helped me figure out what I wanted. It also increased my resilience. So, when I'm having a difficult day on the job—say, there's a security threat or I'm just not able to get my ideas across in a different cultural context—I'm not paralyzed. I can grit my teeth and still get things done.

Ready, Set, Go

So, what do to if you’re contemplating a leave?

First, the practical stuff: Money. While there are fellowship programs out there that could pay for your trip, Borchers, Gabrielson, and I all self-funded our sabbaticals. Gabrielson says, “I had tons of student loan debt and I had to make sacrifices to take a year (which turned into two years) off, but it became clear to me early on that anyone can take time away from their career—and probably should—you just have want to do it.”

That said, it’s a good idea to save as much money as possible in advance. I had been saving for a rainy day, and had finally decided to cash in some of my savings. Although I initially thought I’d use the money for a down payment on a house, I knew that I would regret not taking time to invest in myself. As Borchers puts it, “I felt like I needed a break and life clarity more than I needed money in my savings account.”

Next, know that as quickly as the urge to take a sabbatical arises, the doubts and excuses can creep in, not only from your own fears about money and your career, but also from other people’s reactions to your decision. “A lot of people who knew me professionally thought I was crazy, frivolous, or just super-privileged to be able take time off right after finishing school,” says Gabrielson. It can be difficult to find a support system, especially if you don’t know anyone who has done something similar.

So, go find your tribe. Whether you’re exchanging posts on a niche Facebook group or talking to your best friend’s cousin who once traveled around the world, it helps to stay connected.

Is a sabbatical right for you? Only you can decide. But I think Gabrielson sums it up nicely: “Do it. You will not regret it. Life is not just about making money or advancing a career—it’s about experiencing as much as you can and sharing that with others. Taking a sabbatical enriches more than your life—it enriches others who might be inspired to do the same.”