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Sabbaticals

We are a nation on the verge of professional burnout. The financial crisis has taken its toll on everyone, from technology entrepreneurs, to retail managers, to employees up and down the ranks of corporate America. With stress levels skyrocketing and fierce competition from abroad, how can we as a nation, as well as individuals, reclaim our role as creative leaders and innovators?

If you don’t believe we’re really in a crisis here, check out these statistics. According to the recent MetLife Ninth Annual Study of Employee Benefit Trends, employee loyalty across industries is at a three-year low. One in three workers hopes to find a new job in the next 12 months. More alarming, a recent Gallup survey found that 17 percent of employees interviewed were actively disengaged and trying to subvert their organization. Over 54 percent were passively disengaged – their bodies were in the office, but they had essentially left.No organization can flourish when half (or more) of its workers have a foot out the door. And, no industry can thrive when its companies are bogged down with unhappy, unmotivated employees. Companies need interested, motivated people to excel; disengaged workers cost companies money and seriously impede productivity. Stressed out front-line employees can cause serious reputation problems.

Many of these problems can be attributed to layoffs and increased stress for those who have to pick up the slack in the office. But there’s something else at work here: a severe and chronic lack of time off. According to an Expedia.com survey, 63 percent of Americans work more than 40 hours a week and hand back more than $21 billion in unused vacation dollars each year. Worse, we feel guilty about the little time we do take off, even though Americans put in two to three times more in total hours on the job each year than Europeans and two and a half more weeks than the Japanese. Here in the U.S., younger workers are leaving the fast track in droves to take less stressful jobs. Why? Because work demands keep rising while satisfaction and payoffs decline.

But, before you jump ship or your employees do, there is a way you may be able to address the morale, stress and burnout problems through a simple and age-old practice: a sabbatical (we call it a Reboot Break!).

What is a sabbatical, exactly? It’s a set period of time away from work. A sabbatical can last from one month to a year, and it allows workers to take a break to renew and refresh their lives and better balance their priorities. Corporate sabbatical programs vary from paid for time off to unpaid time off with benefits intact and a guaranteed job at the end.

Intel is a leader in offering sabbaticals and provides a good example for other corporations. Established 15 years ago, Intel’s program has enabled more than 69,000 company workers to take a significant period of time off. All levels of employees, from the CEO to assistants, are eligible after seven years to take two months off at full pay. Most employees save up vacation time, tacking on another month to their break. Management likes the program because it helps Intel attract and retain good people and broadens the knowledge and skill sets of those who cover for the sabbatical taker. The real payback comes when the employee returns with renewed energy, creativity and a fresh perspective.

Companies are catching on. Fortune magazine recently added sabbaticals to its criteria for naming the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Twenty-one companies that made the 2011 list offer sabbaticals, including Microsoft, The Container Store, REI, Adobe Systems and several law firms.

If you think you can’t do it, or you think your company would never agree to giving you some time to reboot, think again. There’s a lot you can do to get yourself some time away from work. In a new book, Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life By Taking a Break, my co-authors and I offer a step-by-step guide to getting the time you need – and making the best of that time once you get it.Here are a few steps you can take now to get yourself the time you need:  

Research. Find out through human resources (or your company’s equivalent) if your company has a sabbatical program. If not, see if they would be willing to read a proposal. Ask about requirements, and look to other companies in your industry for models. (A successful competitor that offers a program could help you make a compelling argument!)

Fund Your Freedom. For most people, finances are the number one barrier to taking time off. Instead of deciding you can’t do it, get creative. Are there assets you can sell? A house or apartment you could rent out while you travel? Could you borrow some of the money, or tap (gently) into your savings, and then live on less during your time off? Or, take the long view and start saving now for time off. Stash the money in a separate sabbatical savings account.

Make Your Case. Create a plan for what you want to do, when you want to do it, and how much time you need. Outline exactly how your responsibilities will be covered while you are gone. Identify ways the organization could benefit, such as increased innovation, retention and attraction and better morale. 

Communicate. Talk to your spouse, partner, family and colleagues about what you want to do and how it might affect them. Get their support. Talk to your boss about a smooth transition.

Unplug. As part of your break, unplug from the office and clients. Tell them ahead of time when you are going and returning, but don’t stay tied into the office. (AARP actually requires their employees to unplug during their one-month paid sabbaticals.)

Sabbaticals are life-changers. They can renew and reinvigorate your life and your career, helping you reprioritize and better balance your life. Don’t be surprised if, as the burnout fades, your perspective about your work changes. You may decide that staying right where you are is the best thing for you, and all it took was a break.


Catherine A. Allen is the chairman and CEO of The Santa Fe Group, a strategic consulting firm based in Santa Fe, New Mexico and sits on several corporate and nonprofit boards. She is the co-author of “Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break,” with Nancy Bearg, Rita Foley and Jaye Smith. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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