Why Taking a Sabbatical Can Actually Save Your Career

Taking a sabbatical can make you a healthier, happier and more productive employee.

If your work life has lost its luster and you’re experiencing more stress than sleep, you’re not alone. Workload was the leading source of employee stress in 2016, and 11 percent of adults in the U.S. reported feeling frequently misunderstood or underappreciated in the workplace, according to a Statista report. All of these things can fuel serious burnout.

More than a catchphrase, this particular stress type can bring emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, as well as doubts about your professional abilities and your work’s value. It can also lead to serious complications, from disordered eating habits and drug or alcohol abuse to chronic illness, insomnia, depression and relationship strife.

It might seem counterintuitive, but taking a break from your now stress-inducing career may actually help save it — and you — in the process.

Ursula Mead, founder and CEO of InHerSight, a company that helps women find and improve workplaces, sees a broad range of benefits from taking a sabbatical, including preventing or minimizing burnout. “There have been a number of studies that have shown that time away from work can, quite simply, improve work  — whether through increased productivity after some much needed time off, better leadership from having the space to refine a vision or greater innovation from seeing things from a new perspective,” she said.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overworked or underwhelmed by work that you once felt enlivened by, read on to see how a sabbatical could benefit you.

Better Physical Health

Working 46 hours or more per week for at least 10 years has been linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in March 2016. Working an additional 10 hours per week raised the risk by 16 percent. Findings like these aren’t surprising to executives such as Mead.

“The level of dedication that many people give at the office can mean sacrificing proper eating, sleeping and exercise practices,” she said. “Time off allows for the chance to recuperate and plan better habits moving forward.”

Establishing healthy sleeping habits alone can help stave off byproducts of sleep deficiency, such as a higher risk for diabetes, heart attack and chronic pain. Exercising moderately a few times per week can not only help establish a routine you’ll hopefully stick to once you’re back at work but boost your immune system. This can help guard against frequent colds, infections and eventual illness-related absences.

After about eight years of providing counseling and sex education for women in committed relationships, Passion by Kait founder Kait Scalisi, MPH, decided to take a sabbatical due to health issues. Four months in, the benefits are already apparent.

“My physical health has improved exponentially,” she said. “I am now able to read and respond to my body better because I’ve created the space to do so.”

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Emotional advantages of time away from work can be equally strong. Sabbaticals can help you avoid or recover from burnout while renewing your sense of purpose, said Mead.

“When you give yourself time to recharge, without a prerequisite life-event, you have the very special opportunity to focus on taking care of yourself and listening to your personal and sometimes even professional needs,” she said.

S. Thomas, a longtime manager in the technology field, used his six-month sabbatical several years ago to learn ways to manage unaddressed depression.

“I worked with a therapist and began studying mindfulness, both of which continue to help me stay calm and focused now that I’m back working,” he said.

While work stress isn’t known to cause depression, which affects over 16 million Americans each year, it can exacerbate the symptoms. On the other hand, work that fuels your spirit may prove to be medicinal.

“One big decision I made during my sabbatical was to switch to a different role [at the same company],” said Thomas. “I look forward to going in every day now, and my moods are markedly better overall.”

So taking a step back can give you perspective and even steer you into a job that’s better for you. A sabbatical might also help reduce other common emotional symptoms of job burnout, such as impatience with coworkers or clients and feeling overly cynical or critical of yourself or others.

Greater Creativity and Inspiration 

If it’s been awhile since you’ve felt that spark of imagination or inspiration, a sabbatical can help by shaking up your routine and making space for creative ventures and thinking.

“It’s so easy to get into a routine that feels unbreakable,” Mead said. “Taking a true break from work, and better yet one that is actually supported and encouraged by your employer, gives you a chance to rest and refocus.”

Researchers have found that sabbaticals not only rejuvenate you physically and emotionally, but effectively unlock creativity, she added.

If you’re able to travel abroad during your time off, even better. A study published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2015 analyzed 21 seasons worth of fashion collections from the world’s leading fashion houses. Researchers found that the more foreign experiences the designers had, the more innovative their work became.

Regardless of where you break away, new experiences bring a sense of novelty, which causes the brain to release dopamine. This feel-good chemical can shift you from apathy or boredom to engagement and excitement, paving the way for creative bliss. Taking time off to pursue new hobbies or take classes might spur those creative sparks.

Having plentiful time to allow your mind to wander while you’re walking, enjoying nature or chilling at home — without your thoughts drifting to work stress — can also sharpen your mind, according to Scientific American. Daydreaming might even allow you to better problem-solve. Some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of all time derived from the drifting minds of geniuses such as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

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Improved Relationships

If most of your conversations with loved ones center on work, you find yourself frequently arguing with your significant other or you feel too drained or overwhelmed to socialize with anyone at all, it might be time to step away from the office and into a sabbatical.

Because nurturing your relationships requires a great deal of time and energy to build and maintain, said Mead, they’re often among the first things dropped when you get caught up juggling work and life.

“A sabbatical is a prime opportunity to revive relationships you may have let fall by the wayside, reach out to new contacts and really spend time being present with and listening to people you can learn from,” she said.

Both Scalisi and Thomas credit sabbatical time for improvements in their interpersonal relationships. This is important career-wise as well, seeing as happiness has been found to boost productivity, according to Harvard Business Review.

“My wife and I ended up connecting in ways we hadn’t in years,” said Thomas. “We took several vacations and I met her at her office for lunch most days. It was like getting to know each other all over again.”

Mead experienced familial benefits from the other side when her husband had the chance to take a sabbatical a few months after their daughter was born.

“Having that opportunity to spend focused, quality time getting to know the new person in our lives, and also figuring out how we as a couple were going to adapt to some of the demands of being new parents was invaluable and so incredibly special,” she said.

Career Growth

Fear of job loss, falling behind or missed opportunities keeps many people from using their vacation days, according to a study conducted by Project Time Off. Yet people who do take a vacation are more likely to get a raise, and just as likely to get a promotion, than those who don’t. A sabbatical can bring similar perks.

From a career growth standpoint, sabbaticals can provide chances to build a powerful network or sign up for interesting programs or training opportunities you might not have otherwise had time for, said Mead. Such networking and training could lead you to encounter new contacts or opportunities, and even lead to higher pay.

Scalisi’s sabbatical is different in that she hasn’t stopped working completely, limiting her work to projects she’s particularly passionate about. She recently landed her biggest paying gig yet, which allowed her to pay off a student loan.

“Amazing opportunities have come my way since taking a step back, ditching the hustle and the ‘shoulds,'” she said. One of her workshops will soon be filmed for a TV show, she recently spoke at a prestigious college and her expertise has been regularly featured by the media — all since cutting herself plentiful slack.

Getting Started

If you want to get the emotional, physical, interpersonal, creative and career benefits of a sabbatical, look into your company’s policies on such breaks. If you don’t find any clear-cut information on your own, talk to a human resources representative. Then develop a detailed plan to pitch to your boss.

If you run your own business, plan ahead by delegating necessary ongoing tasks to others several months beforehand. If you’re planning to pause your entire business, let clients and customers know when you’ll leave and when you’ll return. You might even want to mention your motivations for taking the sabbatical, such as the ability to provide greater products or services down the line, or perks you plan to offer upon your return to keep their interest.

If you’re concerned about maintaining professional relationships, stay in touch with your boss or employees and customers by sending occasional updates, particularly if your away time will be lengthy.

Scalisi feels setting your sights on a specific goal or project is important for sabbatical success.

“For me, the goal was to reconnect with the heart of my business and my special project was my health,” she said. Judging from her progress, such goal setting seems to really pay off.

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