Sabbaticals – a serious tool for change or an organisational inconvenience?

Last year, Roger Federer rocked the Tennis world by returning from a six month sabbatical to win the Australian Open.  He is back at World No1 in the rankings – the oldest (at 36!) to hold this title.

By contrast, 26 year old Ed Sheeran’s famous “gap year/rest from fame” in 2016 was pivotal in providing the creative material for his returning album. Divide, debuted at No.1 in the UK with 672,000 units selling in its first week. He said of this time:

“I find myself seeing the world through a screen and not my eyes, so I’m taking this opportunity to travel the world and see everything I miss”.

Some call it a career break, to some it is a sabbatical.  For me I called my year of “head space”. Transformation, whether it is personal or professional, takes energy. Bags of it. Energy that is constantly eroded away by the many social and technological demands on us all…….even Roger and Ed have suffered!

Why do we need headspace?

Sabbatical literally means ‘ceasing’ although this seems contradictory to the messages of growth and development that I experienced in 2016 when took my year off to cope with some big life changes.  Curious about other people’s experiences I asked friends and colleagues who had also made the leap, whether sabbaticals really are about “ceasing” or “growing”.

Sabbaticals clearly are not for the faint-hearted. There is risk. They can require some cash and a serious amount of determination. There are a million different reasons NOT to take time out. My own sabbatical only happened when my fear of staying put in the same situation became bigger than my fear of getting out it!

With the rise of the well being agenda and transformation on most people’s agendas in organisations, leaders may be faced with increasing requests for “timeout” in different guises. I see some of this in my Executive Coaching work. Coaching can be regular soundbites of time to think and act differently.

What do we learn?

I was intrigued to find out from my interviews how my experience of a sabbatical compared with others. Here, uncut, is the impact of personal breaks/sabbaticals on my interviewees and how they link to stories of inspirational transformation and tough learning. All my interviewees were in large organisations with transformation agendas.  I learned alot:

Learning #1 – Sabbaticals correspond with change

“I felt like I was on a bus, looking out of the window, not sensing what was on the outside. The destination was also blurred. I realised it was time to ‘get off the bus’”

Each person I spoke with had a unique reason for taking a break: Either they were looking to initiate change ordeal with the implications it. Some felt stuck, caught in unhelpful habitual patterns or had desires to travel; others were working through their response to bereavements, relocations or poor health. All were tired in some way. All felt overloaded.

Learning #2 – Resistance is never too far away

“Taking a sabbatical felt like an alien concept. My husband helped drive the decision, if it wasn’t for him pushing for it, it may not have happened.”

People I spoke with said that the “pull” to stay put and resist the risks (financial, health, time, possible career derailment, homesickness etc. etc.) where huge. Many however saw risk as something exciting which provided energy too. What surprised me was the volume of “internal” resistance. Fear of how a few months out could impact on personal career development and fear of missing out on work opportunities. There was also fear of breaking away from the norm (or the “hamster wheel” as one person referred to it).

“When work is the main factor in your life, what is there when you strip it all away?”

Learning #3 – Behavioural change is evident, and it has a ripple effect!

“In my work, I’m now much more aware of the levers that can drive behaviour and I believe that nothing is a big problem. I’ve really learnt to dig deeper, build higher visibility and heightened awareness.”

“When I first returned I was positive, balanced, and helped other people focus on what was really important. This helped others and people gravitated towards this energy I had. I guess they felt like they were getting something different… I’m convinced I returned as a better employee.”

Every person I spoke to reported returning to work with a shift in mind set that was driving new helpful behaviours. It didn’t seem to matter whether they spent their timeout devouring books and catching up with old friends or hiking the Camino de Santiago. Each person learnt lessons that they were able to immediately apply in the workplace. Even better, they infected others’ with a new energy and zest.  They returned to coach others on their experiences and became more resilient to change.

Learning #4 – There’s a desire to sustain the change

“I have a completely different relationship with space, I learned the ability to slow down to increase my productivity, as well as my default, pre-sabbatical state, of speeding up and filling space with pointless meetings”. 

“I reflect on my behaviour as a habit now, not just as something I do at a quarterly Leadership Away Day”

New habits take time to create and if there is something all my interviewees donated themselves, it was time. Time to make new habits stick and grieve or let go of old patterns.

One interviewee even said that long periods of boredom were vital to provide her with the creativity (in a distraction free environment) that produced two new business products.

So how are sabbaticals viewed by HR/organisations?

“I was a skeptic before but not now. My question is, how does a company both encourage and sustain the experience – especially for Executives and Board members?”

“We encouraged this in a young company as way to retain talent. People really liked it however it came with logistical issues when all staff came to the sabbatical crunch point at the same time. Overall, it’s a great idea as long as it’s sustainable.”

The common HR and leadership concerns are typically: How will we backfill the gap? What if they don’t return? What if everyone starts requesting a break? The logistical resistances are easy to identify.

Those I spoke to had overcome a lot of resistance, but it’s made me question how many professionals are holding back, and why. It’s a good reminder that when someone does approach you about taking some timeout, this hasn’t been a light decision on their part. That team member has likely already done plenty of research, deliberation and financial planning.

The biggest issue raised was the question of sustainability and lack of management practices in place to support this.

….on returning back to work?

“Of course, team mates wanted to know, “how was your break?” but then it was a speedy return to the daily grind. Reality is that when you’re the only one who’s had an enlightening experience it’s tough to maintain a new way of being”.

Perhaps sabbaticals are sometimes kept *hush hush* because the focus is on the operational impact and extra work it will cause in the short term, we’re not looking longer-term and remembering that this person will come back with learnings/energy that can help the team and organisation. They’ve had a chance to step outside and look at the big picture.

As one of my interviewees commented, perhaps it’s time for a name change so we can drop the negative connotations associated with “Sabbaticals” and embrace timeout as a tool for sustaining high performance and making the most of change.

“Planned in advance it gives long-standing employees some much needed time off. It often leads to individuals coming back refreshed and ready to go!”

Could this growth have come from staying put and battling through work at the pace we are living it right now? For me, I am not sure. What I am sure about is that sabbaticals don’t need to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. They are a great tool for re-engaging and refreshing your top performers.  The risks are shared so when the employee returns, both the organisation and the employee gain the growth benefits.

#timeout #sabbaticals #transformation #space #change

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Photo by Tristan Pineda on Unsplash