Taking a Power Sabbatical
Finding New Energy by Detouring From the Fast Track
October 22, 2008
By ELIZABETH POPE
TAKING off for an extended period can be a rare opportunity to recharge, recalibrate the life-work equation or reinvent yourself. And whether that break is paid for by an employer, supported by a grant from a foundation or financed by personal savings, many people are turning to timeouts to figure out their next steps.
Only about 18 percent of American companies offer paid or unpaid leaves, and most leaves, unsurprisingly, are in the unpaid camp, according to Steve Miranda, chief human resource officer for the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association. The practice is most common in government, higher education and among nonprofits, he added.
One of the more generous employer plans is at Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting company based in Lincolnshire, Ill., which offers bonus vacation weeks to employees every five years in addition to accrued time off, said Andrés Tapia, the chief diversity officer.
“People stay around here a long time,” said Mr. Tapia, who took a six-week sabbatical last summer to write a book and relax with his family. “A sabbatical is a great way to help them recharge and celebrate five years of service.”
Flexible programs and schedules could become a popular, affordable option for companies if current economic conditions persist, he added. “It started with working moms, expanded to working dads, then people near retirement and now the millennials who want time off to do community service,” he said, referring to 20-something workers. “The one commodity we all crave is time.”
While formal sabbaticals like Hewitt’s are rare in the corporate world, retirees often take a “gap year” to travel, visit grandchildren, volunteer or just clean out closets before returning to work. A 2006 Putnam Investments study found that one-third of newly retired people return to work after 18 months, often to jobs requiring less skill and education.
Mid- to late-career employees may dream of an extended break, but there are risks to taking one, and perhaps even in inquiring about the possibility.
With employers shedding jobs, there might not be a seat to return to, Mr. Miranda said. Those in the top 10 percent of an industry will always be in demand, he said, but those rounding out the top 50 percent might reconsider that round-the-world trip of self-discovery. “An employer may look at you afterwards and say, ‘Hey, that guy just bailed out when the going got tough,’ ” he said.
CATHERINE A. ALLEN
Two years ago, Catherine A. Allen, 62, of Santa Fe, N.M., was on leave from her financial consulting company to become chief executive of BITS, a Washington nonprofit consortium of the nation’s 100 largest financial institutions. At a retreat in Puerto Rico for female executives, she joined a roundtable where the talk turned to sabbaticals. “One woman had just taken a sabbatical, another was ready to and I really needed one,” Ms. Allen said.
A year later, she and three of her tablemates had tailored extended leaves of absence. Last year, before returning to her company, the Santa Fe Group, Ms. Allen spent eight months visiting friends and family, joining nonprofit boards, campaigning for Gov. Bill Richardson and working on a book project about the sabbatical experience.
She also fulfilled a dream of living abroad, spending a month in France. “I never had time before to see friends, do pro-bono work, or immerse myself in another language and culture,” she said.
“You don’t have to be wealthy to do this,” she said. “You can save up all your vacation time, rent your house or take a paid job, like travel companion to an elderly person.”
Although she returned to her company in another capacity and earns less money, she still devotes one day a week to philanthropy and lives abroad for a month every year. “A sabbatical is a huge revelation,” Ms. Allen said. “It teaches you to prioritize, delegate and figure out what’s really important to you.”
At the start of a four-month sabbatical last summer, the first thing Kenneth Schorr of Charlotte, N.C., did was erase his office e-mail address from his home computer. “And I haven’t looked at it once since then,” said Mr. Schorr, 56, the executive director of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, a nonprofit legal aid group.
After 20 years as director, Mr. Schorr was worn out. His sabbatical was underwritten by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a nonprofit in Winston-Salem, N.C., that provides financial support to nonprofit leaders for three- to six-month leaves to focus on personal needs.
In addition to tackling a long list of home repairs, Mr. Schorr spent much of his time with family — daily visits with his aging parents, a weeklong family vacation in Massachusetts and three weeks in Manhattan with his sister and his daughter.
“My sister was astonished at how exhausted I was,” he said. “At first I just slept on her futon, went for a run in Central Park and dropped by a museum before having dinner with my daughter.”
The typical sabbatical participant needs six weeks just to decompress and learn to sleep again, said Claire Peeps, executive director of the Durfee Foundation, which pays for extended leaves for nonprofit directors in Los Angeles County. Complete disconnection from the office is critical, she added, and the foundation writes such conditions into recipients’ contracts.
“No phone, no e-mail, no gala fund-raiser appearances or slipping into the office at night to check the inbox,” she said.
Back in the office, Mr. Schorr hopes to keep a saner schedule but is realistic about the challenge of litigating cases, finding sufficient financing and running a small agency.
“At least I’ve rebuilt relationships with my wife, parents and kids, so I have family strength in the bank to draw on,” he said.
Six years ago, when Diana Meinhold agreed to be the guardian of an old friend with Alzheimer’s, she never realized her caregiver role would change her career path.
“For the last few years, my job challenged my brain, but not my heart,” said Ms. Meinhold, 58, of Costa Mesa, Calif., then a vice president at the Automobile Club of Southern California. “But I got great pleasure figuring out the health care system and providing the highest level of care for my friend.”
Working with an executive coach, she realized she would be happier applying her management and training skills to the assisted-living field, particularly dementia care.
The Automobile Club had no sabbatical policy, so she resigned in February. As she spent months exploring options, she relied on her savings and a few short-term consulting jobs.
The first few months were emotionally difficult — not an unusual reaction to such a major transition for a self-confessed Type-A personality.
“At first you’re euphoric about having no structure, then you feel the loss of identity,” Ms. Meinhold said. “I didn’t realize how much I had invested in the title of vice president.”
She started exercising, reconnecting with friends, working part-time for the Alzheimer’s Association and earning a certification for management positions in the assisted-living field.
After several months of job hunting, she recently took a position with Dakim, makers of brain fitness software that focuses on improving adult cognitive function. She hopes the job will lead to her ultimate goal: to be executive director of an assisted-living facility.
“It’s been the most wonderful time of my life,” she said. “I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, and I’m excited about this new direction. I have never regretted it for one second since I walked away from my job.”