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When a vacation isn't enough, a sabbatical can recharge your life—and your career

Burning out and ready to quit? Consider an extended break instead. Drawing from research inspired by his own 900-mile journey, DJ DiDonna offers practical advice to help people chart a new path through a sabbatical

Published: Mar 6, 2023 10:56:13 AM IST
Updated: Mar 6, 2023 11:09:05 AM IST

When a vacation isn't enough, a sabbatical can recharge your life—and your careerHow taking a prolonged period of time off helped employee reenter their jobs with new vigor and perspective—or inspired them to change the direction of their work entirely Image: Shutterstock

A few years ago, DJ DiDonna seemed to have everything going for him. He had started a successful venture called the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, which used psychometric factors to help banks issuing microloans in the developing world avoid risk.

“We created an alternative credit score to give people access to finance, live up to their potential, and help their families,” he says. DiDonna spent years living out of a suitcase while jetting around the world to talk to bankers and meet inspiring entrepreneurs. “It was an incredible journey,” he says. “It was also a draining, unsustainable way to live.”

Even as he was feeling fulfilled by helping people, he felt himself crashing. “I didn’t think you could burn out from your dream job,” he says. In 2017, he realized that he needed to take a break—and not just a one-week vacation. He decided to take time off and explore neglected interests in the outdoors and in spirituality—by spending six weeks walking 900 miles as part of a Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan.

The experience was life-changing. “It helped me process the possibility that the time at the company I had started could be finished, and that could be OK,” he says. “I could abandon that identity and ask, What else is there?”

The benefits of DiDonna’s extended break led him to study sabbaticals to discover whether others who took them reaped similar rewards. His research comes at a time when an increasing number of people report being worn out on the job, with 43 percent of middle managers reporting burnout in the US and 70 percent of C-suite workers considering quitting to search for jobs that better suit their mental health.

Taking time off

After his sabbatical, DiDonna returned to his alma mater, University of Notre Dame, and ran a lab for domestic policy research. All along, however, colleagues and friends kept asking him about his pilgrimage and its impact on him. He decided to find out whether it was a fluke.

“I really wanted to see if the experience I had was unique,” he says. “Was I alone?”

DiDonna launched The Sabbatical Project, interviewing some 50 people who had similarly taken time off from their work to see what lessons could be learned from their experiences. He recently published the results in a paper in the Academy of Management Journal, describing different ways that sabbaticals can transform a person.

He interviewed people ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, representing all industries. Some were single, some had partners, and some had children. (He has since talked to 250 additional people.)

Nearly all of them expressed how taking a prolonged period of time off helped them reenter their jobs with new vigor and perspective—or inspired them to change the direction of their work entirely. “Even though people did not go in with the same game plan,” DiDonna says, “it was amazing how similar these experiences were.”

Also read: How to live happier in 2023: Diversify your social circle

Recover, explore, practice

To analyze the data, DiDonna’s fellow researchers, University of Notre Dame Professor Matt Bloom and Kira Schabram, assistant professor at the University of Washington, employed techniques from social science research to quantitatively code interviews so they could be systematically scrutinized. He found that sabbaticals tend to follow one or more three distinct phases:

  •     Recover: Participants almost always started with a period of relaxation and unplugging to recover from their workday selves. “They do yoga retreats or spend time in nature or visit family and friends,” DiDonna says. This time takes longer than many people expect—averaging six to eight weeks. For that reason, he suggests that people considering a sabbatical take at least four months off, if not longer, to be able to fully reap the benefits.
  •     Explore: In the explore phase, participants have gathered back some of their personal resources, and now want to explore what more there might be for them in life. They might spend time traveling to new places, taking a class in a subject they’ve been curious about, or tackling a writing project they’ve always wanted to pursue but never had the time. “It’s all about exploring a different side of yourself and trying things on for size,” DiDonna says.
  •     Practice: Sometimes, experimentation is not enough, and a participant wants to practice an activity to see if it would be a good fit. A person might go to Spain to practice pottery techniques or work in an eco-lodge to consider a career change. Some people might write a book or tackle a problem in their company totally separate from their everyday work role. “Oftentimes, we find that these experiences lead to the greatest transformation,” says DiDonna.

In analyzing how these phases interact, he developed three “sabbatical archetypes” to describe the journeys of most participants—a working holiday, which alternates between recovery and practice; a free dive, alternating between recovery and exploration, and a quest, unfolding from recovery to exploration to practice.

Also read: Take this job and love it: How a growth mindset can boost happiness at work


Reinvigorating workers

In all of these trajectories, DiDonna says, it’s clear that a sabbatical is more than just a long vacation; rather, those who take advantage of them can make profound changes, ranging from a renewed focus at their job to a radical career switch.

“It allows people to shed their identity and reaffirm who they are, or gain the confidence and self-discovery to go do something different,” DiDonna says. That is so important, he adds, at a time when some companies are pushing employees to think of themselves as little more than a cog in a wheel.

“Americans see business as very much like Elon Musk sleeping under his desk, not Steve Jobs learning calligraphy,” DiDonna says. “We want to normalize the idea of the sabbatical by sharing these stories showing that a lot of people do this and end up OK, and most likely better.”

DiDonna says employers may want to consider offering sabbaticals as a perk to employees to help show workers that the company values them as whole people and are devoted to their personal growth. At the same time, says DiDonna, it can help the company by reinvigorating staff. “You see when people come back, they have more autonomy, more creativity—they have a greater perspective that can provide more holistic solutions to problems.”

As for those who don’t return to the company after their sabbatical is done, DiDonna says they probably are better off not working there anyway.

Also read: What is 'leaveism'? When vacations are just another day at work


How to sabbatical

DiDonna recommends that employees not wait until they are completely burned out before considering time off. “If you don’t take a sabbatical,” he says, “a sabbatical will take you.” Instead, he recommends planning for it in advance—maybe setting a goal of taking an extended leave in three years, and actively saving up money for it.

He also advises that people set aside enough time to truly reap the benefits of the different stages of time off—at least six months if people are able to—and to commit as much as possible to unplugging from their day-to-day work during that time. “We find that people who had access to work emails, or quit and took a consulting job in the same realm as their job didn’t have the same ability to truly explore,” DiDonna says.

It’s not necessary that a person be single and unencumbered to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. “Some of the most inspirational stories are from people who found how to do it with their family,” he says—such as families who travel to a foreign country for an extended period, perhaps finding a way to homeschool their children in a new culture. “You are modeling to them that there is more to life than work.”

No matter how one takes the time off, DiDonna says, there’s no way to completely anticipate how the experience will change you. Those who too tightly script their sabbaticals are often surprised when opportunities arise that radically upend their idea of how they expected to use their time. Even in those cases, however, those changes are often for the better, helping people truly uncover what they want to be doing in life—and even, perhaps, who they truly are.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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