Featured in today's briefing:
- What sabbatical advocates can learn from the four-day workweek movement.
- Supporting workers with cancer.
The Macro Context
- The Biden Administration announced that it will allow the Covid public-health emergency to expire on May 11, ending funding that included expanded coverage for tests, vaccines, and treatments and bolstered hospitals’ pandemic response.
- The US added 517,000 jobs last month, far exceeding all estimates, as unemployment fell to its lowest level in 53 years at 3.4%.
- The US Employment Cost Index rose 1% in the fourth quarter of last year, falling slightly short of the projected 1.1% and signaling a slowdown in wage growth. Meanwhile, job openings last month increased by 5%, as layoffs and quit numbers held steady.
Focus on How Sabbaticals Change Both Workers and Employers
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 are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Can you share the findings of your study?
We studied 50 professionals from all over the world and tried to figure out what happened on their sabbatical—what changed, if anything? 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?
For recovery, a lot of the existing research talks about low-effort activities— 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.
What are the benefits to both employee and employer of allowing that extended time off?
People 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, ‘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. What's your key personnel risk? What happens if that person quits, gets hit by a bus, whatever? This is a way to 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.
You've done some consulting work with organizations about their own sabbatical policies. What are some of the challenges they’ve encountered?
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.
So work 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 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.
Are there any best practices in the lead-up to a sabbatical in terms of offboarding people effectively?
Communicate early and often. 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 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.
What about for preparing any direct reports of the sabbatical-taker to smoothly navigate that time?
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.
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 when I took mine, and 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 I would say, take it as early as you can. 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.
Read a transcript of our conversation, including what sabbatical advocates can learn from the four-day workweek movement.
What Else You Need to Know
Employers are resolving to better support workers with cancer. In advance of World Cancer Day yesterday, companies including Charter, Google, Pepsi, and Adobe signed the #WorkingWithCancer pledge, launched last month at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, to help lessen the stigma and anxiety many employees feel about undergoing treatment while working.
- Charter co-founder Erin Grau wrote in the Charter Pro newsletter of her own experience working through breast-cancer treatment: “[Support] means equipping managers with the resources and policies they need to accommodate workers’ whole lives. My boss and I worked together to ruthlessly prioritize my work and create a flexible schedule to accommodate chemo, radiation, and surgeries. I not only had access to the leave I needed, but I felt empowered to take it—especially knowing that my boss was evaluating me on outcomes, not the hours I spent in the office.”
The number of women serving on corporate boards is increasing. In 2022, some 41% of new board members at Russell 3000 Index companies were women, while just 17% of departing directors were, according to a new report from the National Association of Corporate Directors.
- The move toward greater gender diversity on boards coincides with the implementation of Nasdaq’s board-diversity rule. Companies listed on the exchange before the rule’s approval in August 2021 have until the end of this year to ensure their board has at least one director who identifies as female, non-white, or LGBTQ. If they don’t, they’re required to explain why.
Child-care benefits are critical to retaining working parents. Among employees who ranked benefits as the top reason they are staying at their current job, the second most important benefit was child-care support, second to only health insurance, according to a new KinderCare survey.
- The authors of the report, which surveyed 2,800 American parents with children under 12, argued for greater employer investments in caregiver support, citing the 69% of respondents who have or would switch jobs for better child-care access and the 67% who believe that employers should offset the cost of child care.
- Other research suggests that subsidized care may be weighted differently for women at the top ranks of leadership. In a recent report by Chief, the network for female executives, more than a third of the 847 members surveyed said they considered leaving their jobs last year. While 74% of those who had pondered quitting said that “feeling more valued” would make them stay, just 10% said the same of child-care benefits—suggesting, as Chief’s summary of the results noted, that “they’re not an end-all-be-all strategy for retention, especially if companies fall short on paying and promoting women fairly.”
Laid-off employees are chafing at receiving the news via email. As the barrage of layoffs in knowledge-work industries continues, many workers are receiving the news from their inboxes rather than face to face. And while people leaders may prefer email communications for their efficiency, workers report that the approach can feel unkind.
- In a Wall Street Journal survey, two-thirds of employers indicated a preference for being laid off in an in-person meeting. Just 11% preferred an email notification, and some 7% preferred a virtual meeting.
- Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher offered advice for leaders who insist on conducting layoffs over email: “...a top leader should personally communicate news about impending layoffs to the company—while also taking responsibility, apologizing and explaining the rationale,” she told the WSJ.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Last week, office occupancy rates in major American cities hit 50% for the first time since the pandemic started, according to card swipe data from Kastle Systems.
- Commercial landlords in Los Angeles—where unleased office space is hovering at 20%—are wooing potential tenants to offices with perks like free comedy shows, concerts, dance classes for kids, and flower-arranging lessons..
- In a recent NLRB filing, Alphabet Workers Union organizers accused YouTube of attempting to chill union activity with a policy shift that imposed new consequences for defying the company’s return-to-office mandate.
- After office vacancy rates rose in the Bay Area in the fourth quarter of 2022, Amazon announced that it would sell a 19-acre parcel of land it had intended for an office expansion.
- The General Services Administration, which manages facilities for civilian workers in the federal government, has opened a workplace innovation lab in Washington, DC. It’s a 25,000 square-foot office space to test ideal workplace arrangements and furnishings.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Do an “I” check. Too often, people undersell themselves by using “we” to describe an accomplishment or the origin of an idea when “I” is more accurate. Before you send an email or a message, scan for language that might downplay your contributions, like an inaccurate “we” or “us,” and swap in “I” or “me” when appropriate.
- Try a “micro-mentorship” session. To get the benefits of mentoring without the ongoing demands on someone else’s time, try shrinking your ask down into one small, discrete chunk. Reach out to get their advice on one specific, meaty career question—a gesture that conveys a clear respect for their busy schedule while preserving the possibility of connecting again down the road.
- Set a shared purpose for 1:1 meetings. Taking the same approach to each 1:1 can diminish their impact. Instead, discuss with the other person what each of you hopes to gain from your time together, and create a mutual goal to structure your sessions around.
- Keep a feelings log. If you’re unhappy or restless at work, start a record of all the elements of your role—every task, every meeting—and note with each experience whether you enjoy it, are indifferent to it, or actively dislike it. With everything on paper, you can get a better understanding of whether the work itself needs to change or if there’s something else—like the commute, a difficult colleague, or your compensation—that’s causing unhappiness.
You, uh, shouldn’t stress too much about filler words. Despite the oft-repeated public-speaking advice to steer clear of “um” and its ilk, recent research has found that these “speech disfluencies” focus the listener’s attention on what comes next, making it easier for them to remember what they hear.
Kenyan workers may soon have legally protected downtime. A new proposal under consideration in Kenya’s parliament would require employers to offer extra compensation to employees who respond to work requests outside of work hours, and forbid workplaces from imposing consequences if workers ignore off-the-clock outreach.
- Other countries with so-called “right to disconnect” laws include Belgium, Portugal, and France—though that hasn’t stopped French executives from claiming the world’s #1 spot as “binge workers.”
How a nautical term sailed right into the corporate lexicon. Use of the word “navigating” in company materials doubled between the second quarters of 2019 and 2020, The New York Times reported, and it’s stayed high ever since.
- Whatever’s being navigated, it’s likely to be unprecedented—another word that, unsurprisingly, has seen a similar surge in popularity over the same time period.