Burnout is as much a threat to employee well-being as it ever was. Some 59% of workers are now at least moderately burned out, more than at the peak of the pandemic in August 2020, according to a recent Aflac survey of 2,000 US employees, while Gallup survey data found that employee engagement continued to decline last year.
Sabbaticals, an antidote to widespread burnout, have become more popular in recent decades, even as they remain relatively rare: In a 2019 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, just 11% of employers reported having a policy for unpaid sabbaticals, and just 5% for paid sabbaticals. To understand the benefits of extended leave for both organizations and employees, we reached out to The Sabbatical Project founder DJ DiDonna, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and co-author of a recently published paper on the sabbatical experience. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Can you share the findings of your study?
We published the first peer-reviewed paper on sabbaticals, studying non-academic sabbatical takers. I think we think about sabbaticals mostly in the professional context among academics—working seven years, getting a year off but really working on research, and things like that. So we defined sabbaticals as extended leave, intentionally spent on not your routine work. And so what we did is, we studied 50 professionals from all over the world and tried to figure out what happened on their sabbatical: What changed, if anything. How people went about taking sabbaticals. What they called them. Everything, just an exploration of the topic. It's in the Academy of Management Discoveries. It's meant to bring new ideas to the fore, in order to call for more academic studies around it.
What we found is that without coordination, people set out on very similar paths: the three stages of recover, explore, and practice. So typically folks take the first part of the sabbatical and recover, heal, however that looks for different folks. And I think we uncovered a pretty interesting new piece about how people recover, which I can go into. And then explore: What would you want to do? Opening up the aperture to what's possible in your life. And then practice is more like, ‘Okay, I've identified some things that I want to actually dig in on.’ So is it a writing project? Is it learning a new skill, becoming a scuba dive instructor? Is it trying a new business opportunity?
What was that finding around recovery?
A lot of the existing research talks about low-effort activities for recovery. So your typical go to a spa, relax, sit on the beach. One thing that I often hear, at least from type A folks, is like, ‘I can't just go and sit on a beach and sip a coconut.’ The prospect of taking months off in order to just relax is intimidating and maybe not helpful for some folks. And so what we found in our paper is that high-effort activities can actually be quite restorative. So folks are out in nature, they're doing a bucket-list hike, or they're sailing across the ocean, or they're traveling on a road trip with three kids in an RV. And those things are actually quite restorative for them, which is a pretty new concept, and I think one that folks are going to be excited to learn about.
That reminds me of the construct of Type 1 and Type 2 fun…
Oh yeah, I'm a big Type 2 fun person.
Are there any recovery approaches or activities that you found to be generally more restorative than others?
It really varies by person. I think that it feels as though the conditions around it are more important than the activity itself. People were able to disconnect a lot more effectively and faster if they were able to get out of their geographic surroundings. So for some people that's flying abroad, for some people that's going on a road trip. Just being out of your surroundings helps you disconnect from that routine life and routine work and schedule and interactions that you have.
Then the second piece is disconnection. Are you disconnected, literally? Do you have access to your work email? Are you checking your phone all the time? And then are you disconnected conceptually? Let's say you work in a certain industry and you're like, ‘Well, I'm going to do one day a week or four hours a week of consulting just to keep the money coming in.’ Folks universally thought that was a bad idea in retrospect. That responsibility expands to fill a lot of brain space, like, ‘Oh man, where am I going to be on Thursday? I have to make sure I have internet connection and in it's quiet place, and did I do this and this?’ And the third one is the duration of the time off that helps make space and gives people the chance to really heal.
Is there a threshold at which point the time off starts to be really effective?
We studied anyone from two months to two years who called it a sabbatical. The consensus on the amount of time is that it takes way longer than you think it would to actually feel like you're yourself again. And six to eight weeks seems to be what folks talked about. So it's like you put that identity down for six to eight weeks and you're like, ‘I feel like myself again. I feel like an earlier version of myself, and not just that mask that I was wearing in that last job and role.’
What about an outer limit, or a point where you’re no longer reaping the benefits?
Retirement's kind of the capital-s sabbatical. All sabbaticals are preparing people for that, mentally. I'm actually interested in researching this more, because I've seen—through both my personal experience and folks I'm close with—that the concern that folks have is that you're going to take off and never want to go back to the working world, which I have not really seen to be the case. I think especially folks who care about impact and career, they want to work on another problem. Not being focused on anything gets old pretty quickly. Sabbaticals are non-addictive, more psychedelics than opioids. There's a lot of research on how people find meaning through work. And so I think if you're not engaging in something for an extended period of time, it starts to become negative and not great for most folks. I don’t know what the amount of time is, but we’re talking years, not months.
On the one hand, part of a sabbatical is a shedding of professional identity and getting back to an older sense of self. On the other hand, many people find meaning and identity in their work. Is there any difficulty or even grief that people tend to experience in that letting-go process?
My personal experience was: I had started my dream company, I loved my coworkers, I loved the mission. We brought access to finance to a million people in emerging markets. And to have to feel burnt out and not understand why, to have that existential wondering of, ‘If this dream job doesn't satisfy me, what will?’ and ‘Why am I not bringing as much energy to this thing?’—that's a very disorienting and difficult experience. So I spent a fair amount of my time not basking in the glory of not having to go to work, but really trying to rejigger, who am I? What's important to me? Is it okay to fall out of love with your work and want to move on? Do I just need a jumpstart? I think that's a pretty common experience.
What are the benefits to both employee and employer of allowing that extended time off?
So one of the things we've found is that people come back with greater self-affirmation. They come back feeling more authentic, like they have more autonomy. Folks who had been in a particular role for a long time who didn't have an inflection-point opportunity to talk about advancement, or didn't feel like they were being appreciated, it really gave them that opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I'm not leaving, but here's what I noticed when I was gone.’ Or ‘Here's how I feel looking at some of the other opportunities that have come up for me.’
So self-affirmation, courage, which I think can take two routes. One is having a person say, ‘No, I'm increasingly confident that I would like to go back to that job. They gave me this benefit.’ Or ‘I realize that I derive a lot of meaning from this work. I just also want some time for myself to do personally interesting stuff every once in a while.’ Or it can go the other way, which is, ‘Oh, I now see that I can never do what I want to at this job.’ Or ‘Man, now that I step away from it, I realize that those personal health issues I was having were related to my stress at work and I can't see a way around that.’
From the company side, I think what you solve for is understanding better what happens when that person is gone. Think of a leader of a company and you're an investor in that company. What's your key personnel risk? What happens if that person quits, gets hit by a bus, whatever? This is a way to sample that and say, what goes well without them? What were they carrying that they should be delegating? Who stepped up in their absence? And what kind of ideas and creative energy do they bring back when they come back? Provide stretch and growth opportunities for junior employees to step up and be in that role for a little bit.
Do you see sabbaticals becoming more common anytime soon?
I look at the four-day work week movement as a path to follow for sabbaticals. Five, 10 years ago, I don't think very many big public realistic companies were thinking about that. I think during the pandemic, it flipped. You have Microsoft Japan, you have the UK experimenting across the entire country. So I think that it can happen slowly, slowly, and then really quickly. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that we all had to experiment. We got to see what's possible. Things that you would never think, like how can banks just go totally remote? And we're getting to experiment with ways to adapt to how people actually want to work. Even though right now we're in a recession, I still get the sense that employees have a fair amount of power in dictating some of the rules. So I think it's close. In the past year, we've had a ton of press mentions all over the place. We had LinkedIn roll out a career-breaks feature, which did more to normalize the career-breaks phenomenon than anything I could have done. So I think we're close. I think the next decade is going to be very telling.
Is that one of the primary sources of reticence you've seen to people wanting to take a sabbatical, is how would they explain it down the road?
I think in the past that's been one of the primary reasons. So I think about it as optics, costs, and responsibilities. Optics is how it looked to other people on a resume, hiring managers, that sort of thing. Costs: can I afford to do this? So it's obviously very much a privilege for folks financially. And then responsibilities: Family, mortgage, how am I going to juggle this? How am I going to make it work? So there all of those are arguments for, ‘I can't take a sabbatical right now,’ but I don't think any of those are really arguments for ‘I can't ever take a sabbatical.’ Just requires you to do planning, requires you to value it and think it's something that's important.
One of the things we found is that an exemplar—so someone who has done it, who you can relate to, who is in a similar position to you, who you look up to—is a huge antecedent to taking that time off. And so what people would find is they'd be talking about it and someone would be like, ‘Oh, actually I did that. Yeah, it was a special case. Jane gave me permission, it wasn't official policy.’ And so I think just kind of poking around and asking people, ‘If you were taking extended leave, how did it go? What would you do?’ I think they'd actually surface a lot of examples inside the company, which would make it a very warm conversation, a warm idea to put out there. As opposed to just being like, we're announcing this policy. Then all of a sudden you can say, ‘Jane has taken it and what’s his face has done it,’ and you have some folks who have done it and I think can make it more real.
You've mentioned the four-day workweek movement as a model here. Are there any lessons or ideas or practices that you've taken from that?
Obviously the research side, they've done lots of studies with organizations, but I think in general it just has proven my suspicion that these kinds of ideas are contagious. If you take every individual that works at a company and you get them alone and no one can hear them, and you're like, ‘Man, wouldn't it be awesome to take a sabbatical? What would you do?’ they say, ‘Oh man, I would spend time with my kid, I would work on my golf game,’ whatever. But then when people put their company hats on, everyone's ‘Shareholder value’ and ‘This could never work for us.’ And so there's this gulf between individuals and individuals in their roles.
But I believe the idea is powerful enough that once you hear it, you start thinking about it, and you're like, ‘I don't know if I can make it to retirement. I don't know what the world will be like then.’ We just went through a freaking global pandemic. Do we need any more reminders of how fragile life is? So I think the four-day work week is an idea that you can test your hypothesis around. Do you have lower productivity when you do a four-day work week or not? You can test that. It’s been shown not to. You can inspire other people pretty easily. And I think most of humanity, if you got them taking off their shareholder value cap, would say, ‘It feels like life would not be as full if I couldn't have an extra day to spend with my family, or a few months to work on my spiritual side or whatnot.’
You've done some consulting work with organizations about their own sabbatical policies. What are some of the challenges they’ve encountered?
I think that one of the challenges that can scare folks away from sabbatical policies is you hear these horror stories: ‘Oh, we tried that and then a lot of people quit and so we stopped.’ Well, if you have never had a extended-leave policy and everyone's so burnt out that they're pleading for it, you're probably going to have greater than average departures because you have this backlog of folks who are burnt out and really need an inflection point in order to think about their life and their future on an ongoing basis. It's going to straighten out to something where you can actually have a positive impact and retain folks, but that can be scary.
Are there any best practices in the lead-up to a sabbatical in terms of offboarding people effectively?
Communicate early and often that it's working. Identify what all your tasks are, who those tasks touch, and make sure that all those folks are aware of it. Again, it's a great exercise to really figure out what folks are doing. Especially for fast-growing companies, someone's probably picked up a bunch of tasks over the years and then never put some of them down. And so it's a great opportunity to say, ‘Here are all the things that I do and here's who I think could do them.’ It's just about expectation-setting. And again, because you will have a plan and it happens in six months or a year, it can not be a surprise to folks and it can actually be something that goes relatively smoothly.
Any advice for how to prepare any direct reports of the sabbatical-taker to smoothly navigate that time?
I think that if you're going to lose your manager, you’ve got to figure out who you're reporting to. Make sure that things like performance reviews, all that stuff doesn't completely fall by the wayside. Again, I think this is an opportunity for growth, both for that person to be taking some of the responsibilities above them and also for them to be getting feedback from another manager in a way that can really benefit their personal growth and professional growth. It's a great opportunity to be able to get different data points and think of it as more empowering. When people quit, go on parental leave, folks end up shouldering more responsibilities temporarily, typically. And so knowing that you have a schedule to anticipate that and you can plan for it in advance feels like a more sustainable way to do it than how people typically leave, just when they quit.
Quiet quitting is still a buzzword. Is that something that can or often does happen in the lead-up to a sabbatical, people mentally checking out far in advance?
I mean, you hear of senioritis all the time. I think that can happen in all sorts of parts of their life. They're going to get married and so they're planning for the wedding. You have another job that you're starting or you're going to grad school or something. But with sabbaticals, I think if you're amped up because you're going to go do a once in a lifetime thing that's important to you, you're pretty excited to reward the company that's allowing you that. And you're excited to help the people who are picking up that extra weight for you, especially if the company has that reciprocity that you're going to be doing that for them later. And so it becomes something that you're not resentful of. It's available to everybody. That's my optimistic view of it. And I think that that typically tends to happen.
Anecdotally, we’ve heard of sabbaticals becoming more popular among younger workers. Is that something you’re seeing?
That was one of the most surprising things that I found. I was 32 I think when I took mine, though I will say that I think that business school is the most socially acceptable sabbatical. You're stepping out of your routine work, work, work until you retire and you die. You're meeting people, you're exploring the world, you're trying things on for size, internships. And then you get done and people pat you on the back and they're like, ‘Congratulations.’ It changed my life completely. And it's a thing that's normalized and people are like, ‘That's great. It's a good thing to take time out of routine life to explore.’
So I was under the assumption that you really have to burn out, that it's more of a midlife crisis-type thing. And I would talk to people after college and in their twenties who'd be like, ‘I worked for two years and I burnt out and took time off.’ And they get a lot of flack from folks of my generation and older. But what people don't understand is that now folks are working when they're 14, 13, on getting into college and getting the job. You've actually been working hard for a decade to get to the job that you're then expected to be rosy and fresh for.
So to answer your question a long way, I think that people who are older are like, ‘Man, I wish I would've done it in my twenties. It doesn't matter. No one cares.’ And people who are younger are like, ‘I can't take a year off. What are they going to think on my resume?’ Everyone always thinks that someone else should do it, but that it would be a bad time for them now. But what I've found is that it's a way to differentiate yourself. You're doing something that's important to you. ‘You were a mountain climbing guide for six months. How was that?’ If someone's going to discriminate against you because you took time off, it's probably a good signal that that company does not respect work life and the whole person. It might not feel good, but it might be a canary in the coal mine.
So I would say, take it as early as you can. The best-case scenario is you can leave a job and know that you have another job and be able to take some time in between, so you're not stressed about finances or what you're going to do. I love the fact that people are doing it in their twenties. Think about those people in their forties when they're hiring managers and senior leaders. Their perspective towards time off is going to be totally different from a generation of people that never did that.
What are you interested in exploring next?
We want to make it equitable. We don't want to make it so much of a privilege. And so you have to work with organizations, governments, nonprofit foundations in order to enable people across a socioeconomic spectrum to do it. So that's working with folks to do experiments to say, ‘You fear X, Y, Z. Does that actually happen? How do people change when they come back? Do you retain them? Are they more creative? Are they more loyal?’ And just feeding this idea in people's heads, especially folks that have the privilege and amounts of responsibility. that can make changes in policy. What I've observed is that those folks, if they take the sabbatical, they value that for other people and they understand that it would be valuable for their people on their team. And then it kind of flows down.